Tigers, Laird reunite with one-year contract
Familiar face excited to return to Detroit as backup to Avila
DETROIT -- In need of a veteran catcher to back up All-Star Alex Avila, the Tigers turned to the backstop Avila once backed up. And in need of a role for 2012 after winning a World Series with the Cardinals, Gerald Laird turned to the place he knew best.
"The Tigers offered me the best deal. I'm not going to go anywhere else," Laird said Friday after finalizing a one-year contract worth $1 million. "They offered me the best deal, and of all the teams, they're the team with the best chance of winning."
Laird nearly got to the postseason with the Tigers in 2009, when he was the primary starter behind the plate. Avila, who was a rookie catcher learning behind Laird then, is an All-Star now, and one of the best catchers in the American League. Laird's job will be to fill in for him.
"Gerald is a veteran catcher that is familiar with both our pitching staff and organization," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in a statement. "As a right-handed hitter, he is the solid complement to Alex Avila as our backup catcher for the 2012 season."
After backing up Yadier Molina, whom Laird considers the best catcher in the National League, the veteran is ready for the same role in Detroit. He's hoping for the same results.
"It's definitely going to be a spot in my heart," Laird said of his time with the Cardinals, "but you know what, the team that I'm coming to is a team I enjoyed. It would be another joy to win with these guys."
The Tigers acquired Laird from the Rangers before the 2009 season in a trade for prospects that included Guillermo Moscoso. He batted .225 with four homers and 33 RBIs in 135 games that year for a team that came within a tiebreaker of the AL Central title and featured Avila as a late-season callup. Laird and Avila split time catching in '10, but Avila got the bulk of the starts down the stretch.
Detroit and Laird amicably parted ways at that point -- Laird looking for more playing time, the club looking to give Avila room to blossom.
The Tigers got through most of this past season with designated hitter Victor Martinez backing up Avila. An early August knee injury Martinez suffered on a slide at home plate made that impossible down the stretch, however, forcing Avila into a long grind of late-season starts that wore him down near season's end and into the playoffs, where he struggled in both the AL Division Series and AL Championship Series.
When Dombrowski spoke a month ago about the team's need for a backup catcher, Laird fit the profile -- a right-handed hitter with a good amount of experience, good defense and a reputation for calling a good game. Laird brings the added bonus of a track record with Tigers pitchers.
That familiarity played a role in the decision for Laird as well. He caught 49 of Justin Verlander's starts from 2009-10 and was a big factor behind Rick Porcello's standout rookie season in '09. He's anticipating the chance to settle into Spring Training without losing time learning a new pitching staff.
"Obviously, there's going to be changes," Laird said, "but they don't change that much. And I know pretty much three-quarters of the staff. I'm familiar with what they like to do.
"I think [Verlander] is growing into his own now. I think he's maturing a lot as a pitcher. I think you're going to see a lot to come in the next five to 10 years. You can see him growing into what he knows he is. It doesn't surprise me what he did this year. And having him and [Max] Scherzer and Ricky [Porcello] in the rotation, why wouldn't you want to come here? It's definitely a big reason why I wanted to come back."
Laird knows that unless something goes wrong, he won't have a chance to catch a lot of games. He has accepted that, much as he did when he signed with the Cardinals last winter. He played just 37 games there this past season, and he probably won't get much more than that in his Tigers reunion.
This year, though, Laird comes in having learned about how to prepare himself for sporadic duty.
"It's easier now," he said. "I backed up Yadier for a year, probably the best catcher in the National League. Early in the year, it was an adjustment, but it worked itself out. I found a routine. ... My job is to just give us a chance to win when I'm in there."