Coming in to the 2012 season many Tiger fans felt very comfortable with the catching situation within the Tiger system. Alex Avila was coming off an all-star season, Gerald Laird was brought in to be a dependable back up and the farm system had a number of quality prospects. However the season did not go as some might have expected.
Avila had a major drop in production seeing his OPS fall from .895 to .736 and top catching prospect Rob Brantly was traded away to Miami in July in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. Gerald Laird did provide the Tigers with a solid backup option but he has since moved on to Atlanta.
While it may appear that the Tigers struggled from the catching position the group as a whole actually posted a combined 3.2 WAR, good for 13th in MLB.
Deeper Dive: Avila’s Offense
Most people were expecting a come-back-to-Earth season for Avila in 2012; his BAbip was an unsustainable .366 and he hit 19 home runs and 33 doubles, good for an extra base hit rate of 12% that far exceeded anything he had done previously in the big leagues or the minors. However, the extent of the drop off was quite surprising as his average fell more than 50 points and his slugging percentage dropped 120.
The average does align with a BAbip more in line with his career norms, but the power drop was concerning. His extra base hit rate came in at 9%, closer to his prior big league seasons, as well as his minor league career. Comparing the two years, Avila just didn’t hit nearly as many balls in the air, as his fly ball rate fell from over 40% of his balls in play to under 30%. He also found himself swinging at more two-seam fastballs and breaking pitches, and less four-seamers, a potential reason for the dropped fly ball rate, and a potential indication that some increased aggressiveness from Avila, as manager Jim Leyland alluded was necessary, might not be such a bad thing.
Avila will once again enter the 2013 season as the Tigers primary catcher. While it is unreasonable to expect him to produce at his 2011 rate it is also reasonable to expect him to produce a bit better than his 2012 numbers based on the recommended and expected adjustments. Finding a middle ground between the two seasons would likely give the Tigers an above average catcher that does not reach free agency until 2016.
Brayan Pena was signed to a one year contract in the off-season to replace Gerald Laird as the primary backup and to ease the burden on Avila. A switch hitter, Pena should provide the Tigers with solid defense and the ability to consistently put the ball in play, but not much offense should be expected out of the career .248 hitter.
The team also has two other catchers on the 40 man roster, Bryan Holaday who appeared in 6 games last season and Ramon Cabrera who was acquired in the Andy Oliver trade. Holaday will get a shot to compete with Pena for the backup catcher position in spring, but will most likely be in Toledo and ready to be called up on if an injury happens.