Rookie Profile: Alex Avila
Alex Avila was drafted in the fifth round in 2008, out of the University of Alabama. He'd hit .343/.441/.615 in college. Scouts liked his bat, but most were lukewarm about his defense and his physical tools. Alex is the son of Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, and while Detroit officials denied that the family connection had anything to do with the selection, I don't think anyone really believed them. Nevertheless, this was not an overdraft: several teams had Avila rated in the fifth through seventh round range, and if the Tigers hadn't have picked him, someone else would have done so in the same area.
He made his pro debut in the Midwest League last summer after signing, hitting .305/.383/.385 in 58 games for West Michigan. He hit just one homer and his overall slugging was disappointing, however he controlled the strike zone fairly well and generally held his own in full-season ball right out of college, a good sign for his future. His defense drew mixed reviews; his arm strength was decent, but there were lots of quibbles about his fielding mechanics and many scouts felt he'd end up at first base eventually. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2009 book, writing that I wasn't sure about the glove, but that I felt his power would increase with more experience.
Avila got a spring training invite as a non-roster guy with the Tigers for 2009, and reportedly caught the eye of manager Jim Leyland. He was solid this spring and this earned him an assignment to Double-A Erie, skipping past the high-A level entirely. He hit .264/.365/.450 for Erie in 93 games, knocking 12 homers, with 52 walks and 72 strikeouts in 329 at-bats. He ripped right-handers well (.284/.389/.476) but was very weak against lefties (.220/.307/.390). On defense he threw out 44% of runners trying to steal on him, very impressive, but he also allowed 11 passed balls in 82 games behind the plate. The general view was that he'd made definite progress with his throwing but that his other defensive skills still need polish.
On August 5th the Tigers promoted Avila to the major league roster. This was somewhat surprising given his lack of experience, but Leyland likes him and was looking for some offensive spark behind the plate. Avila made a good first impression by going 2-for-4 with an RBI double in his major league debut, then shared playing time with Gerald Laird through the rest of the summer.
Avila hit .279/.375/.590 for the Tigers. He retains rookie eligibility for 2010, since he got just 61 at-bats. He actually produced more power for Detroit than he did for Erie, granted the perils of sample size. I'm happy with the fact that he retained his plate discipline in the majors. On defense, he threw out 27% of runners trying to steal on him. He didn't commit an error in 25 games, but he did allow four passed balls. Major league pitchers threw him almost 61% fastballs and he hit well against them, so it will be interesting to see if that changes next year and how his production would fare against a different approach. He hit .324/.405/.678 in August, but just .174/.310/.435 in September and October...were the pitchers figuring him out?
I only saw Avila a couple of times on TV, and am interested in the opinions of Tigers fans or others who saw him more often. Is he the starting catcher for 2010, or does he need additional time in the minors? Grade-wise I'm thinking Grade B+ right now for the '10 book. The possibility of problems with his platoon split and the need for more defensive polish are the main things I see of concern, but overall his development this year was highly impressive.