Lynn Henning: Tigers absorb Avila's concussion absences

Lynn Henning

Detroit — Monday evening was the kind of crisp, glorious night that makes you appreciate baseball in September, especially in a pennant race's waning days.

The White Sox were taking batting practice on Comerica Park's sun-soaked field a few minutes after the Tigers, who were trying to beat the White Sox and move a day closer to punching their playoffs pass, had vacated the cage.

Their lineup had not yet been posted. But the Tigers later announced Alex Avila would play after missing seven consecutive games because of batterings that have led to a steady timeline of concussions.

What has surprised during Avila's time away is the Tigers' steadiness at a position that doesn't always appreciate backups. The Tigers have gotten by primarily with Bryan Holaday and with his particular backup, rookie James McCann.

Holaday is not a big hitter and likely never will be. If hitting had been a bigger part of his big league projection, he never would have been sitting there in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, which is where the Tigers had snared him following his senior year at TCU after he had won the Johnny Bench Award as the top catcher in college baseball.

Big league scouts can have different appraisals. They look initially at a catcher's defense and arm. They want to know the so-called "receiving package" is in place at an up-the-middle position. Hitting is essential, at least at a base level, which is where Holaday has been hovering (.237, with a low-grade OPS of .566).

But, again, his bat wasn't the weapon that made him an early-round pick or brought him to the big leagues. It was his assets behind the plate, which is why the Tigers have at least been able to survive with Avila missing a quarter-plus of the 2014 season.

Cushioning the blow

One reason, for sure, the Tigers haven't been as gutted by Avila's layoffs is his own stresses in 2014 with a bat (.223, .702 OPS). If he had been batting .275 or more with 20 home runs the Tigers would have been dealing with a lineup soft-spot that hasn't been quite as pronounced when Avila's numbers were low-key.

But where Tigers students could have seen a dangerous falloff is at that place they've been all but accident-free. Where they might have had complications is if a pitching staff was sometimes unsettled by a guy behind the plate who either wasn't blocking pitches or who wasn't clicking with his chuckers.

Notice how few times you see a Tigers pitcher shake off either Holaday or McCann. That's the presence of a catcher who can be trusted. Who has done his homework. Who has shed any junior-varsity habits and who can function during the guts of a playoff race.

"I think it's easier than people think, because these guys (Tigers pitchers) are so experienced," Holaday said Monday as he and McCann, his locker neighbor, kibitzed in the pregame clubhouse. "They can tell what to do in a particular situation, so it's kind of a reflection of their skill."

McCann would have been expected to agree. And he did. But this is not only a matter of a rookie knowing his place. McCann was the top Tigers draft choice in 2011 from Arkansas. He was drafted as a possible everyday catcher, which is what his track record in the Tigers farm chain suggests he will be if his bat evolves as it did at Double A and Triple A ahead of September's call-up.

Looking ahead

The question, which will be answered at some point during the offseason or at spring camp in March, is how the Tigers will approach 2015. Avila's concussions are a factor, as the team is almost obliged to acknowledge. He has had issues the team has agreed are serious, not only because of Detroit's purely competitive baseball concerns, but because of the priority placed on the 27-year-old's longterm life.

McCann looks as if he will be a factor in 2015. He has the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), the defense and arm, and a batting stroke that needs only develop more power for him to be considered Avila's successor, given that Avila becomes a free agent in 13 months.

Holaday probably has a more fluid future in Detroit. He can continue to be an ace-in-the-hole as a backup. Even if they return him to Toledo next year and went go with McCann, keeping on hold a player of Holaday's skills could be a season-saver for the Tigers, should Avila's concussion issues not be in his past.

The Tigers, who a few years ago were starved for catchers, also have a third-catcher option in Victor Martinez, not that manager Brad Ausmus cares to play his best hitter in 2014 behind the plate.

They also have Grayson Greiner, another early-round pick, in the hopper after he was grabbed in June from South Carolina. So, a line of succession is in place.

What matters is that the Tigers were functional in 2014 once Avila again missed so much time because of his behind-the-plate bludgeoning.

As it turned out, the fill-ins weren't perfect. But they have scarcely been a problem. And on some teams, even playoff contenders, such quiet continuity wouldn't always have been the case.