Alex Avila better hurry back if he wants to reclaim his job as the Tigers’ No. 1 catcher.
In fact, it may already be too late.
Thrust into a starting role by Avila’s mysterious knee injury, James McCann is proving he’s more than ready for the job. Long considered a top prospect, McCann had compiled a solid major league resume and certainly earned his promotion to the big league club’s backup catcher spot this spring.
But now he’s showing he’s more than ready to take over the position. He hasn’t looked like he’s been in over his head at all since Avila went on the disabled list May 8. In fact, for the most part he’s been playing like a seasoned veteran.
McCann can hit. He can run the bases well too. And his defense looks very solid. The defensive credentials were expected. McCann’s always been solid behind the plate, with a strong and accurate throwing arm and good fundamentals. But probably most Detroit fans didn’t know about his athleticism.
Our eyes should be opened by now. McCann hit a walk-off eleventh-inning homer to beat the Astros. That thrust him immediately into an odd corner of the baseball record books, as the first player since Tim Raines to have their first two major league round-trippers be an inside-the-park homer and a game-winner.
The inside-the-parker demonstrated that McCann has excellent speed for a catcher. He’s not going to steal a lot of bases, but he’s a capable and intelligent base runner who can motor from first to third on a single. And he’s a threat at the plate.
A highlight of his impressive debut as the No 1 catcher was climbing the backstop screen to catch a foul ball in a key spot. McCann is still learning on the job, but he’s amply demonstrated that he has all the necessary tools to excel as a big league catcher, the kind of all-around skills at his position that have not been seen a lot in Detroit since the days of…Brad Ausmus!
So, with Ausmus now the manager and Avila still on the right side of age thirty, if Avila can stay at least halfway healthy, it looks like the Tigers are going to be very solid behind the plate for years to come.
This leaves the Tigers with a nice “problem.” Few teams have the luxury of carrying two good defensive catchers who excel at blocking pitches in the dirt, are decent to excellent pitch framers, and throw out enemy base runners at a very impressive rate. Detroit now does—and both men are credible hitters as well. Though Avila’s batting average has been declining in recent years, his pitch selection is still impressive, giving him a high walk rate that produces a decent on-base percentage. McCann looks like he could hit for a decent average with some power.
Project the two like this: Avila .220/.310/.390; McCann .260/.320/.420. For a tandem of catchers, that would be decent—and in some seasons one or both might produce much better than that. We don’t really know McCann’s ceiling yet.
Detroit may be tempted to use one of the two as trade bait, but management should resist that urge. Given that Avila is concussion prone, he’s often going to need rest anyway. And McCann is still no sure thing—though it’s hard to find any real weak spots in his game.
Since Avila bats lefty, the two would make an ideal platoon—though McCann should probably be used at least half the time and start against some right-handed pitchers. Having both men available would give the Tigers a lot of flexibility and depth at a key position that’s vulnerable to injuries—and catchers always need time off anyway (like in day games after night games). Avila could take a few turns at DH or first base on the occasions when the regulars there need a rest.
With Ausmus—one of the best catchers in the game during his playing career—on hand to provide tutelage, Detroit looks pretty rich now at a key position, with impressive depth—Bryan Holaday is no slouch either, if he needs to fill in, as he has capably done this past month.