Alex Avila: The Tigers' 2010 Starting Catcher?

Eric StashinSenior Writer ISeptember 10, 2009

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 21:  Alex Avila  #73 of the Detroit Tigers poses for a portrait during Photo Day on February 21, 2009 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

How often does a fifth-round draft choice reach the majors in his second professional season? 

It’s a rare enough feat as it is, but it becomes even rarer when the player in question is a catcher. That’s what Tigers' 22-year old catcher Alex Avila has accomplished, however.

After being selected out of the University of Alabama, Avila got a taste of professional baseball last season, getting 213 at-bats in Single-A. He hit .305 with one home run and 22 RBI, but didn’t garner much attention.

Baseball America did not have him ranked among the team’s top-10 prospects, though another catcher, Dusty Ryan, was ranked at No. 9.

With Gerald Laird and Matt Treanor on the roster as well, it seemed unlikely that he would get a look this season.

As much as his questionable offensive output at Single-A, concerns about his defense could have easily caused him to remain in the minor leagues.

Considering that he did not move behind the plate until his junior year of college, those concerns would be justified. 

He was quoted in The Detroit News (click here to read) recently as saying:

“I had played all around the infield, and I knew a lot of teams were looking for a left-hitting catcher. I did it when I was (in Little League) and I always thought it was one of the better positions on the field, and so I was extremely excited to learn it.”

The article talks about how dedicated he was, saying that watching him behind the plate now is significantly different then his time in college.

Even Avila was quoted in the article as saying that “he struggled so much in his first two years with actually catching pitches that someone watching him then ‘would never have believed I would make it up here.’”

Let’s be honest, while the defense is nice, it’s the offense that brings his real appeal. 

At Double-A this season he hit .264 with 12 home runs, 55 RBI, and 52 runs in 329 at-bats.

While the average may not blow you away, it is a realistic number, coming courtesy of a .313 batting average on balls in play. He struck out a bit much, considering the level, with a 23.4 percent strikeout rate. The thing is, he also showed a great eye at the plate, walking at a 13.65 percent clip.

While he’s only been in the majors for around a month, amassing 44 at-bats, he has shown a very similar skill set:

  • Strikeout Rate: 27.3 percent
  • Walk Rate: 12.0 percent

It shouldn’t be surprising to see the strikeouts go up, at least a little bit, as he moves up the ranks, especially given his experience level. Only 542 minor-league at-bats is not a whole lot. With his ability to draw a free pass, you would think that the strikeouts have the potential to decline as he continues to settle in.

The power he’s shown is impressive. On top of the 12 home runs, he had 23 doubles and one triple, giving him a .450 slugging percentage. 

He had a 41.1 percent fly ball rate, so the power idea is a very realistic one. It could also be expected that some of those doubles begin to find their way over the fence.

He’s continued to show the power in the major leagues with four home runs and four doubles in his brief stint. He’s not playing every day, so no matter how good he looks, he’s not going to have value this season.

As for next year, you have to wonder if the Tigers are going to give him a shot. 

Gerald Laird is unsigned and considering his .218 average, the chances of the Tigers bringing him back would seem slim.

Dusty Ryan will also be in the mix, but he showed very little this season, hitting .160 before being demoted to give Avila a shot. He may have been deemed the better prospect prior to the season, but that certainly may have changed at this point.

Still, I would be surprised if the Tigers turned things over to Avila as the full-time catcher next season. He hasn’t had enough experience, especially for a team that is going to be looking to contend once again. 

If he’s not going to play full time, he shouldn’t be on the major league roster. He needs to continue to gain experience behind the plate, not sitting on the bench or playing half the time or less.

He could get a shot midseason, but considering they don’t trust him enough right now even with what they are getting out of Laird offensively, I wouldn’t expect them to trust him early next season.

What do you think about Avila? Will he be the starter next season? How well could he produce?



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