Alex Avila vs. Rob Brantly


The Freep provided timely fodder for this post: 

While much-heralded hurler Jacob Turner was the focal point of last July’s deal to land Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, it’s Brantly that may emerge as the big Marlin that got away. Turner toted a bloated 8.03 ERA with him to Miami, but steadied the rudder a bit down south – 3.38 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 7 H/9, 1.9 W/9, 6 K/9.  Of course this begat a 1-4 record for the pitiable Marlins; the 6’5″, 21-year old northpaw will get ample opportunity to polish his skills in the majors this season for the Quadruple-A Miami nine. His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he pounds the strike zone with all four of his pitches. Some great in-depth analysis on Turner can be found here.

At this point, he projects closer to a Porcello than a Verlander – a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater, not a top of the rotation guy. Even so, those pitchers don’t grow on trees (take a look at the Twins rotation) and as such he had tremendous value.

An even rarer commodity is the left-handed batting catcher that can produce at the plate, as well as behind it. To have two such beasts would be an embarrassment of riches – so with Alex Avila entrenched, Rob Brantly was expendable. Considering the atrocious rotation of Danny Worth and Ryan Raburn at 2nd base, Omar Infante’s steady glove and reliable bat was enough temptation to part with a 23-year old, 6’2″ lefty-swinging backstop that hits for average and has gap power.

At the time of the trade, Brantly had not made his major-league debut, but his minor league numbers were importunate, and consistent among levels: .280/.336/.392, with a 72/129 BB/K ratio. Dismissed to New Orleans after the trade, he tore it up for two weeks in the PCL: .365, 2 HR, 11 RBI, compelling the star-starved Marlins to call Rob up on August 14.

Here is where the allegory between Avila and Brantly resembles the short step from A to B: Alex, in his debut season of 2009, first appeared in the lineup on August 6, and his stat line for 29 games – .279, 5 HR, 14 RBI, 10 BB, 19 K, .375 OBP;  Brantly last year for Miami compiled in 31 games a .290, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 13 BB, 16K, .372 OBP resume’. Small sample size, to be sure, but similar nonetheless.

I did get to view both players in person frequently at Single-A West Michigan – Avila even at a young age had the sturdy, compact build that screamed “catcher”; while Brantly seemed a bit lankier in an A.J. Pierzynski-ish way, with room to fill out. The Midwest League has always been a pitcher’s haven, but both players consistently stung the ball with authority. They also demonstrated strike-zone discipline beyond the typical Single-A ballplayer, used the entire field, and ran well for their position. Their stats for the Whitecaps: Avila, 2008; 213 AB’s, .305/.383/.385; Brantly, 2011; 284 AB’s, .303/.366/.440.

February 12, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila (13) smiles as he works out during spring training at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We all know that Alex turned in an All-Star season in 2011, hitting .295 with 19 HR’s and 82 RBI. His work with the pitching staff has been lauded, and while measuring catchers defensively can be subjective, he certainly is above average behind the dish. We also have seen that he “forgets” to use his glove frequently, taking shots to the mask seemingly every game. Not to mention some nagging knee issues exacerbating the everyday wear-and-tear on a backstop – limiting Avila to squatting 120 games a season seems rational.

Carrying two left-hand batting catchers on the 25-man wouldn’t make much sense, unless one also played on a corner or in the outfield. Not sure if Brantly has the athleticism to try, but the Tigers brass has on several occasions shuffled the deck chairs on the Carnival Triumph, creating lineup spots for plus bats and minus gloves.  Seems like it would have been worth the effort to keep Brantly around as inexpensive insurance and also as an appreciating asset.

Of course, the trade may have been contingent on Brantly’s inclusion – such is the nature of the deal. As discussed here, I love Anibal Sanchez in the rotation, and respect the quiet professionalism of Omar Infante, and I hope they are integral cogs in a championship season. I will watch with interest, however, the development of Rob Brantly. Let’s see if he continues to mirror Alex Avila’s ascent to stardom at baseball’s most difficult position.