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Playing time shrinks, but Tigers’ Avila has vital role

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — If Alex Avila would have approached coach Omar Vizquel and politely asked if he’d exchange jersey numbers with him, Vizquel probably would have been happy to do it.

Avila, who wore No. 13 during his first stint with the Tigers, from 2009-2015, never considered doing any such thing. He is happy to wear the reversed version — 31 — as opposed to taking the number from a soon-to-be-Hall of Famer.

“When Omar was hired (in 2014), he never asked me about it, never said anything about wearing number 13,” Avila said. “Now me coming back, I wasn’t going to ask him for number back. No, I wasn’t going to ask him. He’s definitely earned the right to wear whatever number he wants.”

The jersey number aside, Avila looks as comfortable and at ease wearing the Tigers’ Old English D as he always did. The one-year sabbatical in Chicago hasn’t change his heart.

“I grew up with the Tigers, even before I was a player,” he said. “This team is always going to have a special place in my heart, for sure.”

His role may be smaller in terms of playing time — he is expected to be the backup catcher to James McCann — but he’s just as integral to the clubhouse and leadership as he was before he left.

“I have to be careful what I say about him because his dad is my boss,” joked manager Brad Ausmus, referencing general manager Al Avila. “No, Alex is great. He is a very calming presence behind the plate. He has postseason experience. And even before he left he was outstanding working with McCann and our other catchers.

“He’s a perfect fit. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a left-handed bat.”

Injuries have limited him to 124 games total the last two seasons. He played in 57 games for the White Sox last season, managing a .359 on-base percentage and seven home runs (two off Justin Verlander) in just 169 at-bats.

“I’m excited for what my new role will bring,” he said. “How I am going to prepare for that, how I’m going to help James and the pitchers. I will have a little more time on my hands probably, so I will be able to do more things.”

There was a time a couple of years ago where it seemed Avila’s career would be cut short due to a string of concussions from 2013 through 2014. But since he has gone to a more shock-absorbent hockey-style mask, he hasn’t had a concussion in two years.

“Not since the playoffs in 2014,” he said. “The mask made a difference and also I’ve been more aware of my setup behind the plate. I am passed that now. I’m not going to lie, that was a scary time when for a half a season there I had a couple of those.

“But it is a big relief. I did what I could to make sure I could continue my career and I won’t struggle with it after the fact. I’ve had no issues since. I feel great and I hope to play for a few more years.”

Bell ringer

The Tigers, organizationally, are split on the best role for power-throwing left-hander Chad Bell. Some believe he’s best suited as a starter, others think he should pitch out of the bullpen.

His best chance of making the big-league team right now, though, is out of the bullpen. And that’s where he’s working.

“He’s a guy who has an opportunity,” Ausmus said. “Based on reports from Lloyd McClendon and Jeff Pico (manager and pitching coach at Toledo last season), they really think this is a kid who has a chance to be a big-league pitcher.

“They believe we shouldn’t limit him to relieving. But we are going to take a good look at him.”

Bell, 10-4 with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.456 WHIP at Toledo last season, joins a crowded pool of left-handed relievers fighting for two or three spots — Justin Wilson, Kyle Ryan, Blaine Hardy and Daniel Stumpf.

Around the horn

… Hardy has changed his number, from 65 to 36.

… Ausmus said the plan for both Michael Fulmer and Jordan Zimmermann is to ease them through the first couple of weeks.

“We want to go slow with Fulmer because of the innings he threw last year,” Ausmus said. “With Zimm, we don’t want to rush him and have the neck problems creep back in.”

Both are expected to be ready by the start of the season.

… Closer Francisco Rodriguez was the only pitcher or catcher who didn’t report by Tuesday, but it was not unexpected. Ausmus said he spoke to Rodriguez on Sunday. He could arrive in Lakeland on Tuesday night or Wednesday.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

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