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Tigers' Alex Avila deserves closer look

4/20/2011

While we won't see this Detroit Tigers catcher-designated hitter alignment for a few weeks, I thought things were working out pretty well with Alex Avila handling most of the duties behind the plate and Victor Martinez spending his time without a glove. On Tuesday, the Tigers placed Martinez on the 15-day disabled list with a sore groin, an injury that shouldn't set him or fantasy owners back too much, but it does shine the light on Detroit's actual starting catcher.

Avila enters Wednesday sixth at his position on the ESPN Player Rater, ahead of Martinez (12th), and as someone that owns Avila in a few leagues I've certainly been pleased. The New York Yankees aren't the only team with two top fantasy catchers so far. The Tigers have a pair, too, and among Avila, Martinez, Jorge Posada and Russell Martin, Avila is easily the youngest and the one teeming with upside.

I can't pretend to know what kind of ordeal it actually is to crouch behind home plate 150 times per game and hope an A.J. Burnett pitch finds my mitt rather than bouncing three feet before me, or what toll it takes to focus on offense, but it's pretty clear Martinez is a better hitter than fielder, and the Tigers need him hitting. That Avila is holding his own offensively and defensively makes it possible for Martinez to get most of his starts at DH. The Minnesota Twins can't do that with Joe Mauer, in part because Drew Butera isn't Avila behind or beside the plate.

Avila is still developing his power and plate discipline. I doubt he hits more than 12-14 home runs or bats better than .270 this season, but if you're in a league that requires more than one catcher or in an AL-only league, surely you have to look his way at some point. Avila is hitting .267 with three home runs, none of them in the past week, so I expected his ownership to be dropping. On the contrary, Avila is the fourth-most-added catcher in ESPN standard leagues, behind Nick Hundley, Carlos Ruiz and Martin. While Hundley is hitting an unsustainable .340, I'd take Avila over him. I'd still go with Ruiz (who has a safer batting average) and the rejuvenated Martin (at least while he's healthy), but Avila is on par with those guys based on potential. It's not likely Ruiz will develop big power or Martin durability, yet Avila is in his first full season of duty and so far has been impressive. He's owned in 13.2 percent of leagues, up 6.3 percent over the past week.

Martinez is one of only six catchers to be owned in 100 percent of ESPN's standard leagues, but a third of those guys are on the DL (he and Mauer). As a result, it's natural to flock to available options, and I expect Avila to see an uptick in value. Don't expect him to play every day with Martinez out; he's not a 130-game guy, not yet, and the team recalled Omir Santos to help him out. If you own Martinez, you wait this out, stash him on your DL slot for a few weeks. We might see him catch less in May than the team had originally hoped, and hopefully the extra work doesn't tire Avila out before the season's second half.

By the way, here are some catchers owned in fewer than 1 percent of standard leagues to keep on your deep-league radar for now, but for a few of them there's major potential.

Wilson Ramos, Washington Nationals: Think the Twins wouldn't want to have him back now that Mauer is hurt? Ramos has two or more hits in five of his seven starts, yet the Nationals insist on sending 63-year-old Ivan Rodriguez out to catch half the time. Pretty soon Ramos will be "the guy" and hitting .300 with a few RBIs per week.

Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers: He's off the DL and has a hit in each of his five games, and the potential is there for double-digit home runs. Let's just say he's better than George Kottaras.

Chris Snyder, Pittsburgh Pirates: Also recently back to health, he has legit 15-home run power, and while he might lose 150 points off that .385 batting average he's knocked in runs in three consecutive games.

Hank Conger, Los Angeles Angels: There's little question in my mind he is major league ready, and the switch-hitter will soon be a regular and, by next season, one of my picks to be a top-10 catcher. By this time next month, it might be Jeff Mathis starting only once or twice a week.