Two months ago, Brayan Pena, the Detroit Tigers‘ backup catcher in 2013, announced via Twitter that the Tigers would not be re-signing him. The announcement came as a bit of a surprise as Pena was one of the unsung heroes of the 2013 Tigers. For the second consecutive year, Alex Avila, the Tigers’ starting catcher, battled a series of injuries and struggled mightily at the plate. Avila ended the season batting just .227.
However, Pena was there to answer the Tigers’ call and played exceptionally well. He had the best offensive season of his career, hitting .297 with four HRs and 22 RBIs, and later parlayed his terrific 2013 campaign into a two-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds.
When Pena was in, he provided a consistent bat to the bottom third of the Tigers’ lineup, which is an area that has been notorious for being stagnant over the last several years.Pena also played well defensively in 2013 as he committed just three errors behind the dish and threw out 24 percent of would-be base stealers.
Who knows where the Tigers — who only won the AL Central by one game — might have ended up last season if they didn’t have Pena to fall back on. The departure of Pena means that Bryan Holaday will now be given a chance to back up Avila in 2014. Holaday can be expected to be a solid defender, but questions still remain about his bat.
Holaday spent a brief amount of time with the Tigers last season and hit a very solid .296 in 27 at-bats with one home run. He was also up with the Tigers very briefly in 2012 and hit .250 in a dozen at-bats. Overall, Holaday has hit .282 in 39 big-league at bats, which is a very small sample size that one cannot really draw a concrete conclusion from.
It is worth noting, however, that Holaday is a just a lifetime .243 hitter in the minor leagues over four seasons and has never hit more than seven home runs in a single year. A backup catcher is generally not expected to bring a stellar bat to the party, but the problem the Tigers have is that their starting catcher has been in a serious slump that has lasted for two seasons now.
In 2010, Tigers fans endured a full season of watching a dismal duo comprised of Avila and Gerald Laird share time behind the plate. They were both solid from a defensive standpoint but Laird, who was the stater back then, hit just .207 and Avila hit .228. The following year, Avila broke out and had a tremendous year offensively, but he has struggled to regain his 2011 form even though he did hit a couple of clutch home runs last year.
Laird would return to Detroit in 2012 after spending 2011 with a St. Louis Cardinals team that would win the World Series, but this time the roles were reversed. Laird was Avila’s backup in 2012 and actually performed well in that role and hit a healthy .282, and the Tigers ended up in the World Series but were swept in four games by the San Francisco Giants.
At any rate, the Tigers desperately need Avila to start hitting again in 2014. Even if he does not hit as well next season as he did in 2011, he still needs to be better than he has been the previous two seasons. If the Avila of 2014 resembles the Avila of the last two seasons, the Tigers are liable to get the same type of production from the catching position next season as they did in 2010, which would be a disaster.
The Tigers’ new manager, Brad Ausmus, will undoubtedly help Avila’s defensive game, and hopefully he can carry some of the confidence he gains behind the plate into the batter’s box with him. Wally Joyner, the Tigers’ new hitting coach, will also be there to help Avila tweak his swing, so there is plenty of reason to believe Avila will in fact rebound in 2014, which would be a very welcome sight.
Even a team that features Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez is still going to need a little bit of consistency from the bottom of the lineup.