Avila relegated to backup role as free agency looms

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Alex Avila

Detroit – Backup catcher.

Alex Avila can't quite get both his arms around that concept just yet.

"I don't know if that's the right way to put it," he said. "I guess you get labeled a backup by the amount of playing time you get, but that's not so much up to me as it is to the other organizations that may think I can help their team next season."

Avila, the Tigers' primary catcher since 2010, certainly understands he has lost his starting role to rookie James McCann. Since coming off the DL with a knee injury on July 3, he has filled in at first base when Miguel Cabrera was injured. He has started just three of the last 18 games at catcher.

Going back further, he's started eight games behind the plate since July 10.

Meanwhile, McCann is hitting .276 and playing well beyond his years (25) behind the plate.

"Everybody is going to go through this," Avila said. "Nothing lasts forever. Mac's been doing a great job and between injuries and play, that's what happens in baseball. Everybody at some point goes through it.

"We'll see at the end of the year where my career transitions – whether I'm a platoon backup guy or how that plays out. For right now, every time I am in the lineup, just play hard and see what happens."

The timing of it stinks for Avila. He will be a free agent this offseason. Given his history of concussions (which have not been an issue this season), the knee issues that impacted him before and after he went on the DL for two months, and now the sporadic playing time, he has no idea what his value will be on the open market.

"Playing time is the most important thing, in my mind," he said when asked what he will be looking for in free agency. "I would love to have as many opportunities as possible. I would love to come back to Detroit. But it's probably going to be in more of a backup role.

"With Mac being right-handed and myself being left-handed, I mean, that's the type of player you want to sign to back up McCann. Someone like myself. Then again, there's a lot of other teams looking for that type of player."

That is partly why he's not ready to label himself a backup catcher. He would like to see how he's viewed by other teams.

"I don't know what my role would be going into next year," he said. "That's dependent more on what other teams see me as than what I see myself as."

James McCann

His reputation as a first-rate defensive catcher and handler of pitchers remains intact. His effectiveness as a team leader has not dissipated with the lack of playing time. Which is why it wasn't an easy decision for manager Brad Ausmus to relegate Avila to backup status.

"It's certainly not something that I take lightly," Ausmus said. "Alex is a very thoughtful, intelligent player, and he'll still get some time behind the plate. I am sure it's not easy for him. He takes pride in what he does."

Try as he might, though, Avila hasn't been able to get right at the plate.

Since his All-Star season in 2011, his offensive production has steadily declined -- .297, .243, .227, .218 and now .173. He's always had good on-base numbers and occasional power, but he's fallen off in those areas, as well. His OPS from 2011 to now -- .895, .736, .693, .686, .570.

"I don't have an answer for you," he said. "There is nothing I can say that it's this or it's that. This was definitely not the way you plan it out, not in my mind when I left spring training. But baseball rarely goes the way you plan it. You just adjust to it.

"There's always a lot more factors than what you'd think that go into poor or good play."

He has struggled to find himself after the two-month layoff, he will concede that. But he won't use injuries as an excuse.

"They are not an excuse for anything," he said. "Players get injured all the time. Some guys come back from injuries and are able to pick up where they left off and other guys don't. It takes a little longer."

But he knows the Tigers, slipping out of playoff contention, don't have time to wait.

"Unfortunately for me, the situation we're in as a team doesn't bode well for me personally," Avila said. "There's nothing I can do but show up every day and play as hard as I can. There's nothing more to it and nothing less to it. Obviously it's not a situation I am used to, but you deal with it.

"There's nothing bad about it, nothing wrong about it. Just try to do what you can to help the team win."

Twitter @cmccosky


Series: Two games at Wrigley Field.

First pitch: 8:10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday.

TV/radio:  Tuesday – FSD, MLBN, 1270, 97.1; Wednesday – FSD, ESPN, 1270, 97.1.

Probables: Tuesday – RHP Jason Hammel (6-5, 3.10) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (10-10, 4.95); Wednesday – LHP Jon Lester (8-8, 3.21) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 4.24).

Hammel, Cubs: He’s won his last three starts, yielding just four runs in 15.1 innings. He’s been good at Wrigley, too. In 11 home starts he has a 3.03 ERA and a WHIP of 0.995. He throws mostly four-seam fastballs (91-93), two-seam sinkers and a wicked slider. Opponents are hitting under .200 against his slider this season.

Sanchez, Tigers: The Tigers have spent considerable time trying to figure out why Sanchez has been giving up so many home runs (a career-high 28 and nine in the last five starts). There is no particular pitch that’s hurting him more than others. Right-handers have hit 17, lefties 11. Middle of the order has hit 16, top and bottom 12. He’s given up 15 after falling behind in the count, 13 when he’s even or ahead in the count.