Not too long ago before Alex Avila came along, the catching position for the Tigers had been somewhat of an enigma since Mickey Tettleton played for the Tigers back in the 90′s. Tettleton could hit, but truth be told, he wasn’t exactly a good defensive catcher. The Tigers of course had Ivan Rodriguez for a couple of years as well, but he was on the downside of his pretty brilliant major league career. Rodriguez could still hit and defend a little bit, but certainly not to the levels he had been in previous years. I think you have to go all the way back to Lance Parrish to find that consistent, no doubt, starting catcher for the Tigers, who could both hit and defend.
Alex Avila is that guy for the Tigers. Despite his “down” year in 2012, Avila was still one of the best catchers in the American League, if not the game. His 2.6 fWAR in 116 games was 3rd in the A.L. for full time catchers behind Matt Wieters and A.J. Pierzynski.
The concern regarding Avila is health. He faded down the stretch a bit in 2011, mainly because of an issue with his knee. 2012, the Tigers were able to get him a bit more rest, but he still struggled with nagging injuries, and again there was talk about his knee being an issue. Either way, Avila’s health is paramount to the Tigers having success at the position despite the organization’s recent history of trying to improve the talent and depth of the position.
I shouldn’t say try, the Tigers have increased the talent and depth of the catching position, but it’s not as rosy a picture as it should be given the resources spent doing so in recent years. Here is a look at the catching position behind Alex Avila.
Brayan Pena- Pena, an ex-Royal, was signed by the Tigers this off-season to take over the backup catching duties for Avila. A switch hitter, Pena doesn’t provide particularly much with either the bat or the glove. So why did the Tigers sign him? Basically, Pena is experienced, and while he doesn’t provide a particularly valuable bat or glove, he doesn’t embarrass himself either. Essentially, he is the perfect backup to play around 40 games, and the switch-hitting is a plus.
Bryan Holaday- Holaday isn’t particularly good with the bat, but does do a good job leading a pitching staff, and is pretty good with the glove. I was surprised, given he is a right handed hitter, that the Tigers went out and signed Pena. Holaday’s defensive chops would lend him to being a perfectly acceptable backup catcher, even if he only hit .220 or so.
James McCann- The Tigers spent a 2nd round pick on McCann in 2011, and to be honest, I think it was a waste. I don’t think McCann profiles as much more than a backup catcher, and as we will see, there are plenty of those types in the organization. McCann might be the most physically gifted of all the catchers, there is some athleticism there, and he looks the part with a bat in his hands, but the production isn’t there. He could turn into the best defensive catcher the Tigers have, but that is all projection. And I don’t see him ever becoming a guy that hits for an average above .250 or so, with little power.
Curt Casali- The Tigers selected Casali in the 10th round of the 2011 draft as well. Currently, he is probably the best defensive catcher in the Tigers farm system, and has flashed enough power with a bat in his hands to believe that he could easily surpass McCann on the depth chart. Still, I don’t see a guy who is a starter, but out of all the guys in the minors, he would be the best possibility.
Ramon Cabrera- Cabrera was acquired in a deal with Pittsburgh this off-season for Andrew Oliver. I think his acquisition alone tells us what the Tigers think of some of their own catchers in the minor leagues. Problem is, Cabrera doesn’t really profile as much more of a backup catcher than any of them. His best asset is his bat though, and while some differ on his defensive tools, Cabrera has trouble controlling the running game.
Patrick Leyland- Leyland is going to have to be brought along slowly, but he wasn’t just a nepotism pick on the part of the organization. There is some talent there, but by all rights, he should’ve went to college to play baseball first. Best case scenario here though is a backup catcher once again.
Franklin Navarro- Finally, we have to go all the way to the lowest rungs of the minor league ladder to find a guy who could project as a starter. Navarro has impressed with this tools, but is so far away from the big leagues it’s hard to even consider the guy until we see some evidence of his potential stateside. We should see Navarro in the Gulf Coast League this year.
The Tigers need Alex Avila to stay healthy. Period. Despite the draft picks being spent, I am not comfortable projecting one starter out of the group the Tigers have in the minor leagues. That could change with some development by McCann or Casali, but I’m not super confident in either guy.