Avila optimistic his knee won't be an issue
Tigers catcher expects to be behind the plate as much as possible
DETROIT -- Alex Avila turned 26 years old on Tuesday, a rather young age for a catcher with a combined 410 regular-season and postseason games on his resume. He already has an All-Star starting nod to his credit, a working relationship with the best pitcher in the game and a reputation as one of the game's better defenders against the running game when he's right.
Why, then, does Avila go into this season as arguably one of the more important questions looming on the Tigers' roster?
The age on Avila's knees might be the answer. Good luck putting a number on that after three-plus years of seemingly more foul tips than a catcher should endure, plenty of squats, blocks in the dirt and other work that makes the life of a backstop difficult.
As Avila prepares for the trip to Lakeland, Fla., for Spring Training and another long year of squatting behind the plate and catching one hard fastball after another -- and joking that he might need some extra padding in his mitt to catch Bruce Rondon's 102-mph heater -- he's optimistic his balky left knee won't be an issue after offseason treatment. Moreover, he's adamant that he should be a regular catcher again, rather than somebody who needs to be watched for his health.
"I am an everyday catcher. I expect to play every single day," said Avila, who ended last season in a platoon situation with Gerald Laird. "I mean, what's going to dictate that is my play, and that's my job. That's how I look at it. I plan on catching a lot of games this year."
By a lot, he means about as often as he did in that All-Star season in 2011, when he caught 133. By his play, he doesn't just mean his hitting, but his health.
"If I stay healthy, I might be back there 130, 140 games," Avila said, "and that's my job. That's what I want to do."
Whether that's something the Tigers want to do with Brayan Pena aboard to back up Avila remains to be seen. The fact that Avila even sees another year like that as a goal, after what all that playing time did to his knees two years ago, is startling.
Avila wants to retake that everyday role.
He wasn't really benched last year, except for last summer's stint on the disabled list and a brief May stretch at Seattle when his left knee flared up on him. Even if he was the No. 1 catcher throughout the second half, though, he was essentially in a timeshare by the end.
Part of it was performance-based, given his .176 batting average and 30 strikeouts in 85 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. The fact that the right-handed hitting Laird batted just .204 off southpaws, though, dispels the notion of him as a platoon catcher.
At its roots, this was a health issue that set up a plan the Tigers followed through the summer and into the postseason, even once Detroit encountered a string of left-handed pitchers. For the postseason, it was about a 60-40 split in playing time.
It's not an issue Avila likes talking about, because he knows the durability discussion that follows despite his age. To that end, he hopes that talking about it at TigerFest means he won't have to discuss it at Spring Training. But it's a question Avila feels like he can answer for the first time since everyday play down the stretch in 2011 wore down his knees.
When that season ended, Avila avoided surgery with the recommendation that rest should allow his legs to heal in time for the next spring. When the left knee lingered as a problem, despite MRI exams that showed no serious structural damage, Avila went back at season's end and decided to take another look at recovery. He ended up with a procedure known as a platelet-rich plasma injection.
The treatment involves drawing blood out of an athlete, concentrating platelets separated from the sample into an amount to be injected back into the body, then centering the injection into the spot where doctors want to promote healing and reduce pain.
It doesn't work for everyone. Former Tigers Brandon Inge underwent injections when he was dealing with knee problems in 2010 and felt no benefit from it, eventually requiring surgery at season's end. Avila felt it was worth a shot.
"The doctor said, 'Hey, some players have had this and there's no difference, it doesn't help, and some guys come back and they're good as new,'" Avila said. "For me, the thing is, I had it and I walked right out of the doctor's office no problem. I've had no issues whatsoever. I feel great."
That took place soon after the World Series ended, and it left him taking time off to start the offseason. Once he began working out, he said, "I've already been able to do stuff this offseason that I wasn't able to do last offseason."
He has been able to do some things that were part of his workouts two winters ago, when he carried the benefits from an intense offseason regimen into the season and ended up being an All-Star. If he can enjoy the same benefits, he could be in for a rebound.
Part of the challenge last year, Avila said, was that his left knee is the back leg from which he derives much of his push in his swing. Even if it wasn't always physical, Avila believes the concern over it and the fear that his late-2011 problems could resurface might have hampered him.
"I think sometimes I thought I was a little bit hindered, and I think that got into my head a little bit," Avila said. "Because the year before, I was obviously struggling a little bit physically towards the end, even though I was still playing very well, especially offensively. And I think last year, it might have gotten into my head a little bit and maybe I tried to protect myself a little bit, which may have affected it."
Avila calls this a clean slate -- no rehab work to worry about, no reason to hesitate as he goes about his work. Spring Training will be a much better test than offseason workouts, of course, but he goes into camp with the capability to do more than he did last year at the same time.
To think that will set up a repeat of 2011 might be overly optimistic. The Tigers, though, would gladly take some level of production from Avila in between his '11 stardom and '12 struggles. With a 159-point difference in OPS from '11 to '12, and a wide gap in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) between the two seasons, there's a lot of wiggle room.
For someone entering the prime years of a player's career, it's a potentially big year. For someone whose knees were perceived as having a midlife crisis at times, it's a potential rebirth.