Avila prepared for whatever Tigers decide
Catcher could be backup in Majors or start full-time in Minors
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Alex Avila wasn't necessarily thinking about getting to the Majors his first season catching at the University of Alabama. Call it tunnel vision, but he was preoccupied with trying to drag his aching legs out of bed.
"I remember days when I couldn't even straighten my legs," Avila recalled. "Like walking to class, I had to wake up an extra half-hour [early], because I knew it would take me that much longer to walk to class. It was funny to me. I was like, I cannot believe I can't even straighten my legs today."
It looks like a perfect match -- a strong hitter like Avila getting behind the plate at a position where offense is a great bonus. But it hasn't always been a magical ride to the big leagues for him behind the plate. The start of it, he readily admits, was a bigger grind than many might imagine. It was tough enough that he wasn't entirely sure he was going to make it through the year as a catcher, let alone into the pros.
Nearly four years later, he's still learning. But whether or not Avila is wearing a Tigers uniform on Opening Day, he has established himself as the most promising young catcher the Tigers have had in years, and potentially a two-way threat in the very near future.
It isn't hard to believe he could hit in the big leagues right now. The Tigers' looming roster decision now has to do in part with what's best in the long term.
"I don't think it's so much results with him to make the team," manager Jim Leyland said. "I think it's more [that] you have to make a decision whether you want him to get more development, to catch more. That's the dilemma we're in with him.
"It's not a matter of he hasn't done well enough or he's done well enough, he's done great or he's done poor. It's not any of those things at all. I think it's just a matter of what decision you want to make: Does it benefit everybody [for him] to be here, or does it benefit everybody to be there?"
They're getting their looks to find out. The Tigers wanted to give Avila enough games behind the plate and let Gerald Laird get his needed at-bats at designated hitter. Leyland wrote beside Laird's name on the lineup card: "I've lost my mind!"
Laird proved him sane by belting a home run and a double in Tuesday night's 6-2 win over the Nationals. Just as important, Avila caught all nine innings of a well-pitched game from Max Scherzer, Ryan Perry and others.
That means something to Avila. Ask most catchers what means more, and they'll take catching a quality game over a good day at the plate.
"By far, I'd rather call a nine-inning shutout than hit a home run in a game," Avila said. "I've done that a few times in college and the Minors, and it's such a rewarding feeling after the game, knowing you had a part in a great game the pitcher had. It's definitely more rewarding.
"Maybe [it's better] catching a shutout and hitting a home run."
The Tigers would gladly take that, too.
The Tigers have experience developing guys who were late to catching. Brandon Inge was a shortstop and a closer in college before Detroit drafted him with the idea of converting him. Avila had a head start by contrast, moving behind the plate for his junior season at Alabama.
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The Crimson Tide needed a catcher, and Avila needed a position after playing first and third his first couple of years. Avila loved the idea of commanding a game. The move made sense, but it didn't make a quick transition.
"When I became a catcher at Alabama, the first 2 1/2 months of the fall was the most grueling physical pain I've ever gone through," Avila said. "I wasn't ready for it physically. But going through that adversity the first couple months was getting me prepared for now.
"There were days when I hated it. I didn't want to catch anymore. That's a credit to the coaches at Alabama, because they just kept pushing and pushing and pushing -- not only because they saw I could be good at it, but I was the only option at the time."
Physically, Avila's body got used to it, to the point where he now says squatting is as comfortable as sitting or standing. Mentally, he got used to the concentration level. His temperament allowed him to naturally separate hitting from defense.
The nuances have come in the pros, and they've come quickly. But they haven't come simply by showing up. Avila reported to Spring Training in January and immediately put himself to work with pitchers. Once he was done with them, he would work on his hitting.
"I worked on it equally," he said. "It made for some really long days."
Avila would be physically and mentally tired by the end, but he'd be prepared for the work to come once camp officially began. He has drawn compliments for his work with the staff, and he has had some solid plays behind the plate, though he still drew a little grief from Leyland for a rookie mistake.
"I think he's been doing a pretty good job all spring once he changed to the glove he's going to use," Leyland said. "He tried to break in a new glove catching guys, and [the ball] was popping out. I told him that's not a good idea when you're trying to make a team."
Asked what the biggest focus has been, Avila said everything.
"Receiving, game-calling, footwork, throwing to second, blocking -- all of it," Avila said.
All of that, Leyland said, comes with time, comes with catching. The question is whether it can come in the big leagues catching a game or two a week, or catching every day at Triple-A Toledo.
That's the question facing the Tigers. Either way, Avila feels like he's prepared himself well.
"So far, I've worked pretty hard. I feel like I've had a pretty good spring," Avila said. "Whatever they decide is going to be best for the team and myself, too. Whatever happens, I just see it as I have everything in front of me. As long as I keep working hard, everything will fall into place. Either way, I'll be happy."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.