No Help on Horizon for Tigers Weak-hitting Catchers


This wasn’t the part of the plan.

The Detroit Tigers carried a weak-hitting catching duo for most of the 2009 season, and stayed in first place through the last scheduled day. This year was going to be different.

It hasn’t been.

Last year, Gerald Laird set career highs games played, at bats, and walks. He did so while throwing out 42% of the runners trying to steal against him. But in all those games, all those at bats, he hit a measly .225, posting an OPS+ of only 64.

The pattern for Laird in his career is that the more he plays, the worse he performs at the plate. In 2008 while with the Texas Rangers, Laird played in only 95 games, yet posted career highs in hits, runs, and doubles. His average was .276 and his OPS+ was a respectable (for a catcher) 91. The pattern goes back a few years as well. In 2007, Laird saw action in 120 games but had a .224 average and OPS+ of 64. In 2006, he played in 76 games, batting .296 with seven bombs and an OPS+ of 105, a career best.

This season, Laird is hitting a grotesque .153 (OPS+ of 35). He has just six extra base hits in 85 at bats. He has played in 27 of the Tigers 39 games so far.

More gruesome details after the jump.


Last season, the Tigers didn’t have any other options. Laird caught the overwhelming majority of Detroit’s games. Prior to Alex Avila being called up from the minors on August 6, Laird had played in 91 of the Tigers first 105 games.

The reason? Backups Matt Treanor (who was injured and lost for the year early on), Dusty Ryan, and Dane Sardinha combined to bat .100 (7-for-70) in the 28 games in which they played.

Then Avila came up and all seemed bright for the Tigers future catching situation. Although he had never played above AA, Avila wowed the Tigers brass and their fans with his hot start and his ability to grow a full beard by the fifth inning. He played in 29 of the team’s final 56 games. He homered five times, drove in 14 runs and hit .279 with a 146 OPS+.

But Avila, like Laird, has struggled mightily this season. Entering play today, Avila has gone 8-for-57 (.140) in 21 games. He has homered twice, both solo shots that came in the same game, and has an OPS+ of 50.

The problem is that no other catchers are even on the 40-man roster, so sending Avila down really isn’t an option unless the Tigers are willing to expose another player to waivers. Now, if there was another catcher who was hitting in the minors, this might be something to consider anyway, but there really isn’t.

Robinzon Diaz was brought in during the winter to help push Avila for the backup spot, but he is hitting a woeful .189 at AAA. He does have a bit bigger body of work as a major leaguer, but not significantly larger.

Last season with Pittsburgh, Diaz played in a career-high 41 games, bringing his total to 44. He has just 8 extra-base hits in 139 big league at bats. Couple that with his non-roster status and his poor AAA numbers and you don’t have an upgrade at all.

What that means is that the Tigers have two options in dealing with the poor offensive play of their catchers. They can wait it out and hope that at least one of them starts to hit, or they can explore the trade market, which usually starts to heat up around this time of year.

If they try the trade route, they would still be looking for a veteran to split time with Laird. Ideally, I think they would like to send Avila down and give him the seasoning he so desperately needs in a less-pressurized setting. So they need to find a guy, preferably on the final year of his contract, that can handle the bat at least a little bit.

The best possible fit among teams that are already probable sellers is found in Milwaukee catcher Gregg Zaun.

The Brewers are already eight games back in the division with four teams ahead of them. They have a capable backup in George Kottaras and they have a hot-shot prospect in Jonathan Lucroy who has already been promoted to AAA this season after tearing up the Southern League early on. So they might be willing to trade away their 39-year-old starter.

In Zaun, the Tigers would get a veteran game-caller who still swings a good bat, and does so as a switch-hitter. Zaun has spent the vast majority of his career as a backup, but in recent years found success as a starter as well. He has shown good pop for a catcher as well at times.

Since 2004, Zaun has not failed to post an OPS+ of less than 88 and three times, including this year, he has been better than 100.

Simply put, Zaun is exactly the player the Tigers should target in a trade. He can take over the platoon for Avila, who would then be optioned out, and probably become the number one guy thanks to his bat. He’s a veteran, a good clubhouse guy as far as I know, and he doesn’t require a long-term commitment, leaving the Tigers free to bring Avila back to the big leagues as a starter next season.

The trick is convincing Dave Dombrowski that I’m right, and convincing the Brewers to give him up without giving too much away in return.