TIGERS PREVIEW: Position-by-position — Designated hitter and catcher
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After missing all of 2012 recovering from microfracture knee surgery, Victor Martinez will be a welcome addition to the lineup, putting some protection behind Prince Fielder from the No. 5 spot in the order.
The Tigers handled his return very carefully this spring, not wanting him to have any setbacks, but he came through Grapefruit League play without a hitch, physically.
Getting his timing back may be another thing, as Martinez — who hit .330 with 103 RBI in 2011, and a gaudy .394 with runners in scoring position before he got hurt — hit just .253 this spring.
While Martinez was the back-up catcher to Alex Avila in 2011, the likelihood is that he’ll just DH and play first, although he’ll bring all of his catching gear along. Near the end of spring training, manager Jim Leyland said he wouldn’t rule out Martinez catching in interleague games.
“He will be our full-time DH. Knowing Victor, I’ve already heard, ‘Well, I might want to catch.’ He’s happy to DH, when I say that, but this is in the back of his mind,” GM Dave Dombrowski said.
“We want his bat in the lineup, day-in and day-out.
“I would be more apt to think that he’d get his work in the field at first base at this point, and then the occasional, once-every-two-months-day that Prince (Fielder) doesn’t play first base, and Jim decides to rest him, and be the DH, then Victor’s probably going to be the guy that plays first base at that time.”
After a bout of tendinitis in both knees rendered starting catcher Alex Avila a shadow of himself in the 2011 playoffs, the Tigers game into last season hoping that by keeping him healthy, they could continue to get the same offensive production that had landed Avila the starting gig in the All-Star Game.
The results were 50-50. The Tigers — for the most part — kept Avila healthy, but that didn’t mean that he was able to maintain the numbers from his breakout season a year earlier.
He lost 50 points on his batting average (.295-.243), 120 points on his slugging percentage (.506-.384) and 160 points on his OPS (.895-.736) as his home runs (nine) and RBI (48) totals were about half what they’d been the year prior (19/82).
Coming into this spring, the point of emphasis was for Avila to be more aggressive and perhaps less selective, enabling him to recapture some of that lost power.
“Hot and cold. I think there have been days where he jump-started and got out early, and there’s been days where — and maybe in his defense, he’s just trying to track pitches and get himself ready. I don’t really know. But he could afford to be a little more aggressive,” Leyland said of Avila’s approach this spring.
“He’s a guy that’s capable of using the whole field, but he’s also a guy — he did 20, 21 home runs a couple of years ago. I’m not asking him to do that. He’s got some sock in his bat. He can turn on a ball, and knock it out of the ballpark.
“He can also hit it out to the opposite field. Not to the extent of a Cabrera or somebody. But he can get it over the fence in left field in most of the parks.”
But instructing Avila to swing for the fences and expand his strike zone (and thus comfort zone), is likely counterproductive.
“Well, I don’t think I want to ASK him to hit more home runs. I think if he’s more aggressive early in the count, he will hit them, automatically,” Leyland said. “And the other thing is, it’s a little bit different sometimes when you’re a position player and a catcher. It’s a little bit different when you’re over there at first base, fresh all the time, instead of catching, getting beat up all the time. That’s a little bit different.”
Brayan Pena replaces Gerald Laird as Avila’s backup, and will likely get somewhere around the 60 games and 200 at-bats that Laird was given a year ago.