Amid a disappointing season, one of the commanding bright spots for the Tigers has been Alex Avila. After letting the homegrown catcher walk after the 2015 season, the Tigers brought him back for 2017 at $2 million and have been rewarded with 174 wRC+ in 186 PA. Avila has 10 HR and a .441 OBP. Granted, he’s served mostly against right-handed pitching but that’s one heck of a strong side of a platoon for next to nothing.
Avila isn’t necessarily known for his receiving, but he controls the running game well and is generally considered one of the better game-callers in the sport. The picture on catcher defense can be a little hazy given how much of their role is strategic rather than performative, but other than on matters of framing he seems to be quite good.
In fact, 2017 Avila — at age 30 — reminds me quite a bit of 24-year-old 2011 Avila. He’s striking out more, walking more, and hitting for more power, but the game is moving in that direction as a whole. What we’re seeing this year is essentially the kind of player we saw in 2011. He hits for power, he gets on base, but he does strikeout more than you’d prefer in a perfect world. We’re seeing the best of Avila now, for a second time.
There’s no secret. He’s hitting more fly balls and he’s using left field more. It’s easy to draw that line because that’s exactly what he did during his excellent 2011 campaign.
It’s hard to say exactly why 2017 Avila is reviving the summer of 2011. It might be health or it might be approach. We can’t really say without getting inside his head, and it’s not like we think that he is a true-talent 170 wRC+ hitter, but getting three months of good Avila again is a good reminder that the skills are there when things are properly aligned.
Living through this period has led me to reflect on two Avila-related points about which I’ve long-wondered. The first is that Avila’s 2011 season was something of a curse. He was a 24-year-old catcher playing in his first full season and he was amazing. While the All-Star trip, silver slugger, and deep playoff run were awesome, it set unrealistic expectations for the rest of his career. If you have your career year in your first year, everything after that will always disappoint people. Avila had a truly dreadful 2015, but from 2012-2014 he was a solid major league regular behind the dish when he was out there. He was a league average hitter and being league average and also catching makes you pretty useful. But it never felt like that to a lot of people because he looked so much worse than he did in 2011.
Rather than people treating it like his one fluky great year, everyone looked at him like he had collapsed and that’s probably not fair.
The other big thing I’ve wondered about is whether Jim Leyland broke Avila when he rode him so hard down the stretch in 2011. If you recall, during the early part of that year, Victor Martinez served as the other catcher, but when Martinez suffered a minor injury he stayed in the lineup but wasn’t able to catch. Because of exactly how the roster was set up, the Tigers basically played with one catcher for an extended period of time. Avila was playing so well and the roster was tight so Avila didn’t get a real break until rosters expanded. Then when the playoff push came he obviously had to catch every inning.
By the end, he was in bad shape. I’ve always wondered if things would have been different if Avila had been used more cautiously in 2011. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and the bangs and bruises, and later concussions, would have gotten him anyway. It’s impossible to know, but maybe the lighter workload over the last two seasons has allowed him to recover and his 30-year-old body feels better than he did at 27 and 28.
It’s probably going to end with Avila traded to a contender, and I’ll be happy to see him get another shot at the title he didn’t win in Detroit. Avila’s always been a favorite of mine and his success, despite the team’s struggles, has been a nice development.
Sometime during the next thirty eight days the Detroit Tigers will make a decision about the direction of the franchise. To be fair, every team will make one, but the Tigers decision will be more consequential because of what that decision is likely to be. The Astros and Dodgers will decide to make a run at the 2017 World Series, but they made a similar decision this winter and it doesn’t qualify as news to continue doing something you were already doing.
The Tigers, on the other hand, are likely to make a organizationally-altering choice sometime during the next five weeks. The Tigers have contended in eight of the last 11 seasons and only one of the three bad seasons (2010) happened on purpose. The Tigers were supposed to be the team of the century when they stumbled in 2008 and were certainly considered dangerous in 2015 as well. The team entered 11 of the 12 seasons from 2006 to 2017 intending to play well and make deadline acquisitions to help them play better. This will only be the fourth time during this era in which the decision in July is obvious. They must sell.
What makes this moment different is that this is the first deadline without a championship-starved Mike Ilitch looking impatiently over the shoulder of the the general manager. The Tigers sold effectively two summers ago, but they only traded players who were set to be free agents and did not expect to re-sign. It was clear to everyone in July 2015 that the Tigers intended to try again in 2016, and they tried very hard that winter to build the club back into a contender. They got close.
But this year the conversation is different. JD Martinez will be traded because he’s an elite hitter who will be a free agent in four and a half months. K-Rod is a free agent who might be traded but not for anything of substance. Alex Avila is a free agent at year’s end and thanks to his great first half will bring the team back something solid. But the bigger question is whether the Tigers will take the opportunity at this deadline to tear the team apart, punting at least on 2018 in the process. That isn’t a question Tigers fans have faced. In each of the previous disappointing seasons, the question was always about the best way to win next year. For the first time that mandate appears to be absent.
So we turn to Ian Kinsler and Justin Wilson. But also inevitably to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. It seems pretty unlikely that Kinsler and Wilson will be part of the next Tigers winner, as both are free agents after 2018. Justin Verlander, in his 12th season in Detroit, is only under contract through 2019. Cabrera’s deal runs six more seasons with two options, but time is starting to wear away at him as well. The question the Tigers will ask is whether a contending team is possible in 2018, and while it certainly is possible, it’s challenging. They aren’t just one or two players away. The players they have need to play better and they need one or two more players to supplement them. Making that work within the budget they’ve set will be difficult. And if 2018 is gone, so are Kinsler and Wilson. And if 2018 is gone, does it make sense for Verlander to stay. And if you’ve cleared the deck of all the desirable veterans, where does that leave the certain Hall of Famer who plays first?
This domino-ing could sweep up Iglesias and Castellanos. Maybe Upton too. This seasons is essentially over. They’d have to play like a 95-win club the rest of the way to get to 85 wins and a 105-win team to make it to 90. If 2017 is over, you must consider 2018. And if 2018 is a pipe dream, nearly every player should be on the block.
This is as existential as it gets when talking about baseball rosters. Once the Tigers commit to the end of this year — a commitment that is coming any day — we have to consider the implications that it will unwind an entire decade tied together with the yarn of Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.
There’s nothing to be said about 2017 except for the fact that the die had been cast. The Tigers decided after 2015 that they wanted to make a run in 2016 and once that decision was made, there was nowhere to hide. There was no way to abandon 2017, but there was no mechanism to get much better this winter. They rode it out, lost, and are now faced with the inevitable. Selling now is nothing. It’s not controversial or emotional. The season is over, baring a miracle. But the season being over might also mean that everything is over, and that’s a weighty thought.
It’s hard to maintain a competitive team for a decade. The Tigers made the decision not to contend preseason just once in the last 12 years. For the first time since before I was old enough to drive a car, the team is looking at a rebuilding cycle. That’s something, but I don’t know what.
I’m not opposed to the idea; it might actually be a lot of fun. The team will lose games but there will be new faces and exciting young players coming up through the system. The stakes will be lower and the day to day stress of the games will be easier to manage. Taking some time to nurture a new generation of Tigers is appealing.
On the other hand, taking that step will require us to come to terms with the end of something. Verlander is the only holdover from 2006 but Cabrera has been around since 2008 and the remaining turnover has been gradual. There’s definitely a Leyland period and an Ausmus period, a Dombrowski and an Avila, but this has felt like a series of chapters in the same novel rather than an entirely new team each year. There’s a good chance that will end sometime in the next 38 days.
One hundred and twelve years ago a fire destroyed much of Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard took that moment to declare the city’s motto to be “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” Translated, it means “We hope for better things; It will arise from the ashes.”
Well, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.