Tigers State of the Position: Catcher

In preparation for the changes about to take hold of the Tigers roster given their transition state, it seems appropriate to take stock of where the organization stands at the MLB level, MLB-ready depth, and long-term prospects, as well as where the organization carries risk and how that can be mitigated. To do this, we will look at each position on the diamond, beginning with the catchers.

MLB Grade: B
Players Considered: Alex Avila, Bryan Holaday, James McCann
Though the situation developed largely because of Alex Avila’s injury this season, the Tigers are fortunate to have a quality situation behind the plate at the Major League level. The platoon of Avila and McCann offers a blend of offense and defense that is an asset to the team, and Bryan Holaday’s intermittent presence at the big league level provides a capable MLB backup catcher.

MLB-ready Depth Grade: D
Players Considered: Bryan Holaday, Miguel Gonzalez, Manny Pina, Austin Green
Outside of Holaday, who merely profiles as a backup catcher capable of playing one to two days a week, the Tigers have nothing of substance at the upper levels to provide support. Both Miguel Gonzalez and Manny Pina are quintessential org players, and both are slated to hit the open market as free agents this winter, leaving the Tigers with precious little at Double-A or above. Austin Green has some potential to steal time as a backup catcher should injuries strike, but his playing time would have to be severely limited.

Pipeline Grade: C
Players Considered: Will Allen, Jheyzer Azuaje, Elys Escobar, Austin Green, Grayson Greiner, Franklin Navarro, Mario Sanjur, Kade Scivicque, Andrew Sthormes
Austin Green is the only viable – and by viable, I simply mean capable of filling an MLB role – catching prospect at the upper levels of the system. College products like Grayson Greiner and Kade Scivicque have the pedigree to move quickly to the upper levels, but Greiner has struggled and severely damaged his prospect stock in High-A this year, and Scivicque entered the system just weeks ago. While both players have shown promise at times, most recently Scivicque with an impressive debut in West Michigan, they should be considered moderate term solutions to any emerging catching needs at the big league level. On the long-term horizon, the Tigers have several intriguing options, arguably led by Will Allen, who has shown impressive flashes in his return from a serious injury at Mississippi last year. The Tigers have some catching prospects worth watching, but precious few are close enough to the big leagues to help support the big club when needs arise.

Risk Assessment
Short-Term Risk: High
Long-Term Risk: Moderate

With Alex Avila a pending free agent, and James McCann’s career .257/.283/.357 (.255/.282/.353 in 2015) against right-handed pitching, the Tigers need to find a suitable answer for 2016. That answer can include a continuation of the increased role McCann has seen of late, but that will come with suspect performance against the preponderance of pitchers, and simply promoting Bryan Holaday to take some time away from McCann accomplishes little. The Tigers will enter this offseason needing to accomplish one of two things, 1) find a suitable platoon partner for McCann that can split catching duties somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-50, or 2) make sure the rest of their offense maintains enough clout to compensate for what is likely to be overall below-average output from the catcher position.

Looking at the long-term, the Tigers have some players – Austin Green, Grayson Greiner, and Kade Scivicque – that have a reasonable chance of contributing to the big league team, though at least two of those players projects as little more than a backup. The Tigers also have a litany of players that could be intriguing options further down the line, helping improve the long-term outlook of the catcher position within the Tigers organization.

The Path Forward
It is clear the Tigers need to do something to address Alex Avila’s potential departure, and that something cannot realistically entail entering the 2016 season with James McCann and Bryan Holaday expected to share the catching duties. There will be options available on the free agent market, including John Jaso who is likely to be a highly sought after piece this winter, but the Tigers could decide to dip their toes in the free agent waters with the goal of finding a suitable platoon or time-share partner for McCann. Similarly, the Tigers could simply – though a likely unpopular decision – decide to re-up Alex Avila at a modest rate while handing more and more time to McCann but providing the manager with a left-handed hitting option on some days. Given the other needs on the roster, needs that will be addressed in upcoming articles, I expect the Tigers to either re-up Avila or enter the 2016 season with Bryan Holaday as the backup while signing a couple of better veteran minor leaguers that may be able to help in a pinch.

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