Among the Cubs’ many needs this offseason – at least two quality starting pitchers and at least as many quality relievers – grabbing a competent backup catcher often gets overlooked.
I guess it’s understandable – the Cubs have (arguably) the most exciting young catcher in the game coming off a career year both at and behind the plate. But if last season taught us anything, it’s that catching depth is extremely important. At one point near the end of the season, you might recall, the Cubs’ starting (Alex Avila) and backup (Rene Rivera) catchers were two guys not even on the roster in July.
Fortunately, there’s at least one particularly talented catcher available in free agency this winter who provides an excellent fit with this particular Cubs team as a backup to Willson Contreras. The only problem is that, until today, he seemed destined for a starting job.
But maybe that’s no longer the case:
Free Agent Alex Avila is open to being a backup catcher on a winning team pic.twitter.com/Wp5jq6Jjnb
— MLB Network Radio Sirius 209, XM 89 (@MLBNetworkRadio) November 29, 2017
If Alex Avila is willing to be a backup for the Cubs once again in 2018, they may have hit the jackpot – he’s a veteran, has experience with this staff, and is a plus on both offense and defense.
But let’s start with that stick.
On the season, Avila hit a fantastic .264/.387/.447 (124 wRC+) in the 376 plate appearances between the Tigers and Cubs. He did strikeout a heckuva lot of times (31.9%), but he walked at a ridiculously high clip (16.5%) and had the single lowest soft-hit rate and the second-highest hard-hit rate among all players with at least 350 plate appearances. That’s just bonkers. Basically, he’s not just a good hitting catcher. He’s a good hitter. Full stop.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. Avila happens to hit from the left side of the plate, which would present a perfect complement to the righty Contreras.
Avila v. RHP: 134 wRC+
Contreras v. RHP: 114 wRC+
Avila v. LHP: 44 wRC+
Contreras v. LHP: 137 wRC+
Obviously, you’re not going to platoon Willson Contreras – his overall ability is just too valuable for that – but against very tough righties, Avila would be the perfect answer for the Cubs. And, of course, given Contreras’ injuries in 2017, back-to-back deep postseason runs, and his importance to the future of the Cubs, more time off throughout the season wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for a young catcher.
Moreover, assuming the Cubs hang onto Kyle Schwarber, they could use Avila as an extremely potent bench bat on days he doesn’t start without risking being left without a catcher should Contreras have to leave the game.
Unlike most offensively-inclined catchers, Avila is actually pretty fantastic on defense, too.
His 3 defensive runs saved last season ranked 14th among all catchers with at least 600 defensive innings last season (tied with Yadier Molina), and nobody ahead of him on the list did it in fewer innings. Moreover, his .309 caught stealing percentage would’ve ranked 14th in all of baseball if he had enough innings to qualify, and actually represents a better mark than Contreras (.274), who we generally consider as above average in that department. (Caveat: Contreras was working with some very-slow-to-the-plate pitchers.)
And on top of ALL THAT, Avila, 30, has been in the Major Leagues for nine seasons, which makes him a seasoned vet behind the plate, and has a half-season head-start in experience with this Cubs pitching staff.
There are some knocks, of course, like his relatively poor framing skills – he rated at -10.0 framing runs above average last year, according to BP, ahead of only Jonathan Lucroy, James McCann, Matt Wieters, Cameron Rupp, and Salvador Perez. (Contreras wasn’t much better, at -6.8, only a few spots ahead of Avila. For what it’s worth, Avila was slightly better in 2016, at -7.1, and ahead of 12 other full-time or primary backup catchers. Contreras rated as one of the top 20 in baseball, at +6.5.)
You can’t just throw out the framing value, but all things considered, Avila’s very close to as ideal of a backup as you can want.
… but that’s also the reason he very well could find a starting job somewhere.
I’m not saying that I don’t believe Avila is willing to be a backup for a winner again next season, but that’s at least one hugely important thing the Cubs won’t be able to offer him that many other teams can: a starter’s share of innings. The Cubs also can’t offer him the opportunity to pick up extra at bats as a DH or at first base.
Could they knock him out with money to make up for it? Well, projections have Avila looking at a mere one or two-year deal with an AAV in the $6 million to $8 million range. The Cubs could easily handle that. But, to be fair, it’s a lot of money to commit to a back-up catcher, a spot that usually has you more in the $2 to $3 million range. For example, Rene Rivera might be had for a one-year, $3 million deal, and he offers you a great bat against lefties, veteran experience, great defense and framing (though he rated as slightly below average in framing last year at BP). Might you want Avila more? Sure. But how much more is he worth in a back-up role over someone like Rivera?
If the Cubs can find a way to get Avila back into the fold in Chicago, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Cubs would have the best catching tandem going into 2018 (with an excellent catching prospect behind them at AAA). It’ll just be a matter of how aggressive they’re willing to be in paying a backup, and how sincere Avila is in his willingness to be the backup on a team like the Cubs.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.