The sudden ascension of Al Avila into the top job in the Tigers organization has one intriguing side effect: it would seem to secure his son Alex’s future with Detroit. Or does it?
Alex is set to become a free agent this year. Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall when father negotiates with son on a new contract? Will dad say, “Son, you need to clean your room before we give you a few more million?”
First off, let’s make the commentators on ESPN, MLB Network, and elsewhere get their names straight. The man who’s now at the reins of the Tigers pronounces his name with the accent on the first syllable, the son who’s the catcher for the team moves it to the second syllable. But so far on most broadcasts, the latter pronunciation has ran roughshod over the father’s, who’s until now been lesser known than in the broader baseball world.
Secondly, though at first blush it seems obvious that AH-vee-la will re-sign ah-VEE-lah to a nice new contract, maybe it’s actually so cut-and-dried. There are more than a few teams who might want a catcher the quality of Alex, were he to be available on the open market. Though his hitting has fallen off over the years, he’s still a mild power threat, draws a lot of walks, and provides a much-needed left-handed bat. His handling of the pitching staff, his throwing arm, and his overall defensive game have improved. A bunch of teams could use him as their No. 1.
But assuming that the catcher wants to stay here and the general manager wants to keep him, what then do the Tigers do with James McCann?
McCann has had a very solid rookie season, one that might otherwise earn him strong consideration for Rookie of the Year in a season where someone the quality of Carlos Correa did not debut. McCann excels in all aspects of the game and is already a better hitter than Avila. He can even run the bases pretty well. McCann has earned a position as the No. 1 catcher going forward. But on what team?
If the Tigers re-signed Avila to a multi-year contract at, presumably, something less than he would get from other teams on the open market, they could then use McCann as a premiere trade chip to fill other pressing needs on the team—most importantly, more pitching or a new left fielder. As a young but already proven good No. 1 catcher, McCann has serious trade value—something the Tigers could employ to add the kind of player or players they need to return to contention next season.
As an alternative the Tigers could let Alex walk, despite his close ties here, and save some contract money to sign a free agent pitcher or left fielder. But that doesn’t seem a very likely path.
Of course, there is a third alternative: the Tigers could keep both Avila and McCann. But is this a luxury the Tigers can afford? Would the Tiger catchers get enough playing time to justify keeping them both?
Perhaps Detroit should consider the solution the Yankees used in the early 1960s quite successfully. They had three catchers—Yogi Berra, Johnny Blanchard, and Elston Howard. Somehow they kept all three as regular contributors by using one of them in left field most days and the third available as a pinch hitter. If they could do that before the days of the designated hitter, certainly the Tigers could do something similar with their two catchers. I bet McCann could learn to play left field adequately, and we know Avila can play first base, and of course either could fill in at DH when needed. If the two Tiger catchers each had a secondary position, it might justify keeping them both on the team.
It’s an interesting problem for new GM Al Avila, complicated by the fact he’s dealing with his own son.
But the solution may already be sealed. Though Brad Ausmus is downplaying it, perhaps the shoving match in the dugout last week seals McCann’s fate. We don’t know all the facts behind the spat, but if McCann is going to criticize the defense of Jose Iglesias, perhaps he needs a new home. Though in the long term Detroit may regret letting him go, for the sake of getting back to the World Series while their veteran stalwarts are still playing, it might be prudent to shop McCann around. No doubt he’d fetch something very valuable in return.