Detroit Tigers: Alex Avila and Gerald Laird Reverse Roles as Backstop Rakers

J CookCorrespondent IFebruary 28, 2012

Tigers All-Star catcher Alex Avila
Tigers All-Star catcher Alex AvilaHarry How/Getty Images

One thing was certain about Alex Avila’s postseason performance following a scorching hot summer stretch that delivered him an American League All-Star start in 2011, the Tigers catcher was tired, worn-out and flat out of gas.

Avila had the best season of his young career, but Detroit was forced to overuse his talents as a result of too many injuries and an inability to juggle their major league roster to include another backstop.

His lackluster postseason performance was a result of too much time handling the Tigers pitching staff during the long haul of a big-league summer. Avila managed to spit out only three hits in 41 at-bats over 11 postseason games. 

Nothing compared to his regular season stats. The type of performance that had Tigers fans believing the young kid was the next coming of Pudge Rodriguez, or at least Lance Parrish. Much more excitement about a backstop than they had in quite some time.

To say it's been far too long would be an understatement. It's been nearly a generation since fans have had something to really roar about behind the dish. It's time. Avila is that guy and can be for a long time avoiding injury and early-onset career fatigue.

Avila will need to get rest in 2012 from time to time if the Tigers expect him to carry the type of stats he had last season, hitting .295 and knocking in 82 runs, including an impressive 33 doubles and 19 home runs.

However, he raked 141 times, for any catcher that’s a lot of games. About 15-20 fewer beatings per season would most likely keep Avila healthier and more productive down the stretch and into postseason play.

At one point late last season, a ball ricocheted so hard off of Avila’s face mask that replay video showed sparks shooting. Sparks! Actual tiny bolts of lightning-like flame shooting at his eyes—an example of the type of beating Avila took last year.

That is the type of beating that cannot be repeated in 2012. Avila has the makings of a perennial All-Star catcher and provides power from the left side of the plate in the middle of a potent Detroit lineup.

A repeat of his 140-plus formula would deliver regression of a much greater magnitude and at an increased rate in 2012. The Tigers saw to it so that wouldn't happen. They needed a bona fide backup for Avila.

This offseason they went out and got one. He's no stranger to Motown, either.

Enter, and welcome back, Gerald Laird. Yes, the same Gerald Laird Tigers fans loathed at the end of the 2010 season. The same Gerald Laird that will be picking up his World Series championship ring with the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals, where he was the backup for the world champions in 2011.

Laird has devolved from a slightly better-than-average defensive catcher with a less-than-stellar swing, to a serviceable backup catcher whose only real purpose will be to rest Avila.

Jim Leyland won’t expect much from his bat, Tigers fans shouldn’t either. Really, that isn’t his job. His job is to keep Alex Avila, one of the premiere catchers in the American League, healthy and ready to go beyond game 162.

Laird's best two seasons were as a backup catcher in Texas, hitting .296 in 78 games in 2006 and .276 in 2012 over 95 games. As a backup, Jim Leyland would be ecstatic to see Laird hit above .275 in 50 to 60 starts.

A season like that for Laird would be productive in ways not seen in game to game stats or across sports ticker banners. Intangible gains with endless returns for a team on the verge of being the biggest threat in baseball. Laird is what the Tigers needed to show a respect to their young catcher he certainly earned last season.

The Tigers did right by Avila in finding him a suitable backup that understands and appreciates the Detroit organization. From his time in St. Louis, Laird understands his valued, but limited playing time. Last time Laird was in town, he was the starter-mentor, and Avila the young backup apprentice.

Gerald Laird hasn’t been a catcher for the Detroit Tigers in over a year, but as a backup to his former self, he puts the 2012 Tigers in a much better position.