Niyo: All business for Avilas as trade deadline looms

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Alex Avila, then 22, a non-roster invitee to Tigers spring training camp, and his father Al Avila, then the Tigers' vice-president and assistant general manager, sit together in spring training in 2009.

The quips about his old man grew stale a long time ago. But Alex Avila knows that just goes with the territory.

“I’ve been getting jokes about my dad being my boss for years,” he said, smiling.

And with his boss — Tigers general manager Al Avila — weighing some heavy decisions in advance of Monday’s trade deadline, the younger Avila is bracing for more. Particularly since his is one of the names involved. Even his teammates will occasionally make a crack about that. But what’s he supposed to say, really?

“I kind of give it the courtesy laugh,” Alex Avila said.

And then he gets back to business, which is what both the father and the son are busy preparing to do now, with Al working the phones trying to make a deal — or deals — and Alex waiting to hear just what the deal is when it comes to his immediate future.

“I’m sure it’s extremely unique,” Alex said of this father-son deadline dynamic. “I don’t know if there’s been many situations like this. But for us, it’s not bizarre. Obviously, it’s something we’ve never experienced together. But I think he understands, and I understand, and we’ve talked about — that this is not something that’s a big deal for us.

“We understand it’s a part of his job, and it’s part of my job as a player where I’m at in my career.”

Valuable talent

Everyone knows the story by now of Al Avila, then an assistant GM, lobbying against drafting his son in Detroit way back in 2008, a father hoping to spare his son a career full of questions about nepotism. And ironically, one of Al Avila’s first jobs when he was promoted to replace Dave Dombrowski shortly after the trade deadline in 2015 was to let his son know it was time to part company.

At the time, Alex Avila, who ultimately signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent, was four years removed from his breakout All-Star season in 2011. He also was coming off the worst year of his career, slowed by injuries and sporting a .191 average while helping groom his would-be replacement in rookie James McCann.

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This time, it’s a bit different, as the younger Avila has bounced back in a big way after another disappointing year in 2016. Enough so that he has garnered interest from playoff contenders as a backup catcher who could add valuable depth and postseason experience.

He’s a left-handed hitter with an on-base percentage hovering near .400 and some opposite-field power. He’s also a savvy veteran who calls a good game behind the plate and has the position flexibility to play first base in a pinch. Avila, who signed a one-year deal for $2 million to return to Detroit last winter, comes cheap, too, both in terms of his prorated 2017 salary and what a team would have to give up in return.

That’s partly because he’s slumping after a red-hot spring, hitting just .154 (8-for-52) in July with no homers and 21 strikeouts. Still, Avila’s OPS was over 1.000 the first three months of the season, and his hard-contact rate (50.0 percent) leads the majors among players with at least 250 plate appearances.

Even in the last week or so, we’ve seen some glimpses of what he could bring to a team in a pennant race, drawing a leadoff walk — working his way back from an 0-2 count — and then scoring the winning run in an 11-inning victory over Toronto, or lacing a clutch two-out, two-run single to tie the score against the Royals on Monday night.

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The Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies are possible suitors, but other teams could be in the mix. And while Avila’s hardly the only option on the market — Jonathan Lucroy (Rangers), A.J. Ellis (Marlins), Nick Hundley (Giants), Kurt Suzuki (Braves) could be moved — he knows there’s a good chance he’ll finish this season somewhere other than Detroit.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Avila said. “I have thought about it, as far as getting traded. But there’s really nothing you can do as a player, when your name is being circulated through the industry like that. You just try to stay up to date but still come to work and be prepared to do your job — that’s really all you can control. And whether it happens or not, you deal with it when the time comes.”

Saying goodbye

More deals are coming for the Tigers, we know that. And more tearful goodbyes, perhaps. Al Avila couldn’t hide his emotions when he announced the Martinez trade early last week in Kansas City.

As a youngster, Martinez played for Avila’s brother, Ralph, on a Little League team that also included Al’s nephew. He went on to play high school baseball almost literally in Avila’s backyard in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and later on the same college team as Avila’s youngest son, Alan. And it was that history that played a role in the Tigers deciding to take a flier on Martinez after the Astros released him in spring training a few years ago.

Alex Avila

So when the GM described the deal with the Diamondbacks as “a very difficult situation for me” it wasn’t simply because he was effectively waving the white flag on this Tigers season.

“I’ve known J.D. since he was a kid — he’s almost like my son,” Avila said. “Some of these guys, it’s very difficult for me to even talk about.”

It’s not easy for the players, either. And it’s palpable now in the Tigers’ clubhouse — the restlessness and the resignation — after months of trade rumors and another 100 games of sub-.500 baseball. But who’s going? And where?

“You tend to get a little anxious, just waiting on whether it does or doesn’t happen,” Alex Avila said. “But there’s nothing you can do. You kind of wish that the rumors and the speculation and just the stuff that’s kind of thrown out there (wouldn’t) happen, because it does involve our lives, and more people than just ourselves.

“But that’s part of the sport. As players, we have to understand, too: It’s our livelihood, yes, but people are watching and in tune and are invested in it, so it’s kind of theirs as well. You just have to understand that.”

Maybe that’s easier to say, given his own status. Not as the GM’s son, mind you. But as pending free agent for the third time in his career. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where he gets traded to a contender, gets a shot at an elusive World Series ring, and then returns to Detroit as a free agent again this offseason.

Yet for now, he insists, “I’m not really worried about it.” Because whether he gets traded or not, “I’m still gonna get to play baseball.” And even if he’s working for a new boss, the more important relationship — the one with his father — won’t change.