Detroit Tiger Rookie McCann Poised to Unseat Avila?

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Alex Avila may have to share the catching spotlight again.

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As a rookie in 2010, Avila split the Detroit Tiger catching duties with Gerald Laird. Beginning in 2011, he became the team’s regular catcher and has served in that capacity ever since.

According to comments from Tiger manager Brad Ausmus this week, though, Avila’s recent strangle hold on the position may be in jeopardy, as in essence the second -year skipper declared the position to be an open competition in 2015.

There are three reasons for this development:

–Avila’s steady offensive decline since his All-Star season in 2011
–the propensity of Avila to incur concussions behind the plate
–the readiness of James McCann to handle major league backstop duties

In 2011, Avila was a rising star.

In 141 games that year he slashed .295/.389/.506, and made the American League All-Star team. Originally an infielder in college, Avila later switched to catcher, a move that paid off handsomely once he became a professional.

Once Avila donned the “tools of ignorance” he made rapid progress at one of the game’s most challenging positions, and has become a premier receiver.

Unfortunately, as his defensive skills evolved behind the plate, his offensive output has been increasingly missing in action.

To wit, since 2012 his production with the bat has steadily decreased to the point where Avila was only able to scrape together a slash line of .218/.327/.359 in 2014.

Though catcher is arguably the most critical defensive position on the field, a fatal attraction to the Mendoza line on the offensive side is sure to attract the attention of the team’s overseers, even if one of them happens to be your father (i.e., Assistant General Manager Al Avila).

A second concern looming over Avila, who is set to become a free agent in 2016, is the uncanny number of foul tips and follow-through swings that collide with his headgear and rattle his skull.

Avila has suffered numerous concussions in the past several years, which have resulted in the loss of significant playing time. Though he has been medically cleared to resume normal baseball activities for 2015, continuing to absorb concussions would not only further diminish his playability, but would place the rest of his career in jeopardy.

Enter James McCann.

A 24 year-old California native who attended the Univesity of Arkansas, the 6’2″, 210 pound McCann was selected by the Tigers in the second round (76th overall) of the 2011 MLB draft. Since Detroit did not possess a first round choice that year, he was the team’s first overall pick.

McCann had entered that draft as a solid though unspectacular player. His reputation fell into the “good field, might hit” mold, and his selection was about as exciting to Tiger fans as listening to a professional bowling tournament on the radio.

With catchers at a premium throughout baseball, though, the Tigers knew what they were doing. With McCann already possessing the size, leadership ability, and deft defensive skills that comprise a solid major league backstop, they pulled the lever and hoped he would eventually hit.

At first, he did not.

As a first year professional in 2011, he spent time in the Gulf Coast League (rookie) and at West Michigan (A). In limited at-bats, he slashed .146/.222/.250.

Though things improved modestly in 2012 as McCann split time between West Michigan and Erie (AA), his offensive production remained uninspiring (.237/.278/.311) and kept him off the “best prospect” lists.

In 2013, however, McCann spent the entire year at Erie, totalling 441 at bats, and began to figure out professional pitchers (.277/.328/.404).

This upward trend continued to accelerate throughout 2014, as McCann collected 417 at bats at AAA Toledo (.295/.343/.427). Significantly, McCann also flashed a bit of power in August with five home runs, an element that had hitherto been missing from his game.

Not surprisingly, McCann made his major league debut in September, though he was used sparingly down the stretch.

The Bottom Line

So with nothing more than a few well-turned lines praising McCann’s catching abilities and declaring the starting position open to competition, Brad Ausmus has set the wheels in motion for a potential lineup change.

It promises to be a battle of two skilled defenders, each of whom has to prove he can carry his weight with the bat.

Though Alex Avila‘s star shone brightly in 2011, it has been in eclipse ever since. He’ll have to find a way to re-kindle that fire if he wants to remain with the team beyond 2015.

As for the challenger McCann, his moment may have arrived.

Though the quality of his defense delivered him to the portal of the major leagues, McCann’s success in the batter’s box in 2015 will determine whether he serves as Avila’s back-up, shares the job with him, or wins the job outright.

The  battle begins in spring training, and though the outcome is in doubt, we know one thing for sure.

With his 18 years of experience as a major league catcher, you couldn’t ask for a more qualified referee than Brad Ausmus.

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