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Detroit — This has been an offseason of change for Alex Avila, whose beloved Alabama and Southeastern Conference were stunned in football bowl season.

Oh, and he's heard about it.

"Hey, if you're gonna dish it out," Avila said, "then you've gotta be able to take it."

Now, it's shaping up to be a season of change for the Tigers catcher, too.

Not only is he switching to the hockey-style mask in an effort to cut down on concussions — a change he first discussed with The News late last year — he also could be lowering his crouch for the same reason, he could be playing some first base, and he could be seeing a fair amount of time batting second.

Let's start with that last item. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus first mentioned Avila as a possible No. 2 hitter on Thursday, and it drew some chuckles from some fans on the Tigers Winter Caravan. But Ausmus was serious.

And here's why: The Tigers don't have an obvious No. 2 hitter, and few Tigers get on base as much as Avila against right-handed pitchers.

"I wasn't joking when I said that," Ausmus said. "Alex gets on base. Probably a little bit of the downside is you string together guys like Alex, Miggy (Cabrera), Victor (Martinez), it's not exactly speed merchants on the bases at that point. But I've thought about it. I haven't made a decision, but it's a realistic possiblity against a right-handed pitcher."

The initial reaction from fans to Ausmus' revelation was overwhelmingly negative, because Avila hasn't been great offensively for a couple seasons now, as his injuries have become more serious and occurred more regularly.

But Avila has a career on-base percentage of .358 against right-handers — more than 100 points higher than his batting average — and a year ago, it was .340, very respectable. That's what the Tigers want, baserunners on in front of RBI machines Cabrera, Martinez and J.D. Martinez.

Avila, for one, gets it.

"I wouldn't be opposed to doing that," Avila said. "I've been able to figure out ways to get on base over the course of my career. The drawback, obviously, is I'm not as fast as other guys that would be hitting there.

"Geno (Lamont) would probably joke the guy has to probably fall down or fumble the ball five or six times in the outfield for me to score from first on a double. There's obviously some drawbacks, but Brad's the manager. He's gonna try to figure out what combination's gonna be the best. I'm sure there'll be many different lineups over the course of the season."

The upside for Avila is that he's likely to see more fastballs and good pitches to hit batting in front of the Big Three, because opposing pitchers don't want to face the Big Three with runners on base. That could help jumpstart his offense.

Avila's defense is hardly a problem. He's one of the best defensive catchers in the game, particularly with his ability to block balls in the dirt and throw out would-be base-stealers.

But then there's those darn foul tips, which seem to ring his bell dozens of times a year — more than most catchers. It's led to multiple concussions over the last few years, including one at during the 2014 postseason. The situation has led the Tigers on a hunt to find out why he's a foul-tip magnet, and Ausmus thinks he may have found the reason.

Starting this spring, Ausmus, a former Gold Glove catcher, is going to try to get Avila to crouch down lower, so that the foul tips off the top off bats aren't catching him flush in the face mask, but rather miss him.

"I don't know how effective that will be, it's tough to change that," Ausmus said. "But we've talked about that, because concussions are something to be worried about."

Avila, 27, the Tigers' starting catcher since 2010, is open to trying a new crouch, but only if it doesn't impede his blocking of pitches in the dirt, or his throwing.

"That's more difficult to do, because he (Ausmus) was able to set up one way because his body allowed him to. My body is different than his," Avila said. "If there's a way I can be comfortable and still mobile back there, that may help out. But at the same time, I don't want to jeopardize the fact I can't get to a ball in the dirt."

Again, though, he'll give it a shot. "Absolutely," he said. "I don't like getting hit."

The new hockey mask should help him there, over the traditional, two-piece mask he's worn his entire career. For starters, Ausmus said, it'll prevent injury on batters' backswings — Avila estimated he got hit by in the back of the head by a bat five times last year — because there's protection in the back of the head. It'll also help deflect foul tips, as the hockey mask has a triangle shape arching out from the nose, as opposed to the traditional mask, which is flatter.

Avila tried the hockey mask once in spring training and quickly ditched it because it wasn't comfortable. He said Saturday at TigerFest that no matter how uncomfortable it gets this spring, he's sticking with it.

Avila also needs a new glove — a first-base glove. Ausmus said Avila and Victor Martinez are the Tigers mostly likely to play first base should Cabrera, rehabbing after offseason foot and ankle surgery, not be ready to play the first couple weeks of the season. Avila played first base in college and in the minors, and even played an inning there last season, though it was a blowout loss and all anyone remembers about that game is that Andrew Romine pitched.

"Trust me," Avila said, laughing, "that'll be on a very limited basis, if I do. Once Miguel's back, no one else is playing first."

Some changes for Avila, in other words, will be easier than others.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

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