Sunday, April 8, 2012
Avila shows he's third weapon for Tigers
By David Schoenfield
It would be easy to pile on the Boston Red Sox right now. Rip apart the bullpen. Mock all those who said Jonathan Papelbon wasn't worth $50 million. Make fun of Bobby Valentine or Red Sox Nation already being thrown into a fit of worry. Or just suggest that they bring back fried chicken and beer to the clubhouse.
But the more reasoned response: It's just three games. Three painful losses, but still just three losses. The Phillies won 102 games in 2011 and had four streaks of at least three losses, including an eight-game streak. The Yankees won the AL with 97 wins and had six streaks of at least three losses in a row. So let's not overreact just yet.
Instead, let's give credit to the Detroit Tigers. They capped a series sweep of Boston with a stunning 13-12 victory on Sunday, a game featuring 35 hits, 391 pitches, 13 pitchers and two gigantic blown saves by Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon. After hitting his dramatic walk-off home run in the 11th inning, Tigers catcher Alex Avila summed up the wild contest: "You don't see those kinds of games at this level very often. There's really no rhyme or reason or explanation for it."
The Tigers aren't a three-man team. They weren't a two-man team a year ago. And while Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder could prove to be one of the most lethal offensive duos we've seen in several years, Avila could prove to be a deadly third weapon in the order. Avila mostly flew under the national radar last season, although he was voted in as the All-Star starter. His .295/.389/.506 line wasn't superb just for a catcher -- he ranked fifth in the AL in on-base percentage and eighth in OPS. Despite that, Jim Leyland kept Avila in the bottom of the order most of the season, with most of his starts (61) coming in the eighth spot. On Opening Day, Avila hit eighth. He's been sixth the past two games. I don't think he'll be headed back to the bottom of the lineup any time soon.
Against Melancon, Avila fouled off a 2-2 fastball and then smoked a curveball just over the fence in right field. "Hanging curveball," Melancon told reporters after the game. "It was a hanger and he hit it out.''
Avila is a key to the Detroit lineup. As good as the Cabrera-Fielder combo is, they need production from other spots. Leadoff hitter Austin Jackson is off to a blazing start with a .571 average, but his OBP a year ago was just .317, a reason the Tigers ranked just 24th in leadoff OBP. No. 5 hitter Delmon Young is another hitter with historically low OBP issues, just .302 a year ago and .321 career. He may drive in 100 runs by mistake hitting after Cabrera and Fielder, but he projects as one of the weaker No. 5 hitters in the league.
That puts pressure on Avila in the No. 6 spot. Assuming he stays there, he'll also get a lot of RBI opportunities. He's patient and grinds at-bats -- he had two walks as well on Sunday. He'll likely face a lot of situational lefties late in games; he held his own against left-handers a year ago (.273) but isn't as dangerous against same-side hurlers. But that's a small nitpick. He's solid behind the plate (threw out 32 percent of base stealers in 2011) and if he produces like 2011, you'll start seeing Avila mentioned more on a national scale: As maybe the best catcher in the game, in the same breath as guys like Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, Buster Posey and Yadier Molina.