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 Tigers face late-game catching conundrum

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PostSubject: Tigers face late-game catching conundrum   Sun Dec 26, 2010 7:25 pm

Tigers face late-game catching conundrum
By Jason Beck / MLB.com | 12/22/10 12:30 PM EST

DETROIT -- The matchup problems new Tiger Victor Martinez pose aren't just for opponents. Some of them for the Tigers as well, including one lingering question Detroit hasn't had to answer in recent years.

What will the Tigers do if Alex Avila has to leave a game in which Victor Martinez is the designated hitter?

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has had to deal with that question for years, with Joe Mauer getting days of partial rest at DH. Now it's Jim Leyland's turn. And Leyland indicated at the Winter Meetings that he wouldn't be afraid to make a move that forces him to give up the DH slot, if he felt like it was their best chance to win a game.

Detroit signed Martinez with the idea of having him make the bulk of his starts at DH, then catch maybe a couple days a week in place of Avila. Most of those starts are expected to come when the club faces a left-handed starter.

The Tigers have tried to limit the starts for the left-handed-hitting Avila against left-handed pitching at this young stage of his career. With Martinez a switch-hitter, the move makes sense. But it also raises the issue of what Detroit will do in late-game situations, when opponents can use a left-handed reliever against Avila.

Avila made just 38 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers last year, during which the 23-year-old went 6-for-33 (.182) with three walks and nine strikeouts. Twenty-five of those plate appearances came against lefty starters, during which he went 5-for-20. That means Avila went 1-for-13 against lefty relievers.

Avila's former catching mate, Gerald Laird, made eight pinch-hit appearances and five other mid-game entrances. He bats right-handed.

Doing that now, however, comes with a risk. If Martinez starts the game as a DH, the only way for him to move behind the plate would be for the Tigers to give up the DH spot.

Theoretically, the pitcher would then have to hit for himself when the spot comes up, though the club would almost surely use pinch-hitters in those cases as long as they had somebody on the bench. Keep in mind that with Martinez serving as both primary DH and second catcher, that saves a bench spot for someone else rather than keeping someone whose sole purpose is as backup catcher.

Another option would be for the Tigers to carry a third catcher, something the Twins have done at times over the past several years. It serves more of a purpose when one catcher is hobbled for a short stretch and can play only a limited role.

However, Avila and Martinez are the only true catchers on Detroit's 40-man roster. Max St. Pierre and Omir Santos both have Major League experience, and both are under Minor League contracts with Detroit. But it's expensive insurance to use one of four positional bench spots on a catcher who would rarely if ever start a game, especially with uncertainty at second base depending on Carlos Guillen's health, a potential mix in left field and utility infielder Ramon Santiago likely to get starts in various spots.

Then there's the emergency catcher, an option that has been a last resort for Detroit for years, but which could be an intriguing proposition. The logical option would be Brandon Inge, a regular catcher for the first half of his Tigers career before shifting to third base in 2004. But Inge turns 34 years old in May and underwent surgery on both of his knees after the 2009 season. While he maybe could catch on a rare occasion if absolutely needed, even he admits he probably couldn't catch regularly anymore even if he wanted.

Indeed, though it never came to pass, Detroit's emergency catcher last year was Ryan Raburn. He has never caught in a game. It's one of just three positions he hasn't played in the big leagues, along with pitcher and shortstop. However, Raburn is expected to get a lot of time in left field. Don Kelly also supposedly has the potential to catch, but he hasn't done it in a game, either.

How the Tigers handle the whole thing probably won't determine whether they ultimately win. Still, for a team that hasn't had a combination catcher/DH since the days of Mickey Tettleton, it's an interesting issue to have.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
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