Though Alex Avila’s bat has never matched the breakout levels he produced in 2011, the White Sox think he can be an upgrade at catcher.
Even as injuries have slowed him down from a campaign that earned votes for the American League’s Most Valuable Player, Avila has continued to be a threat against right-handed pitchers.
Looking for offensive improvement on a catching tandem that struggled last season, the White Sox signed Avila on Wednesday to a one-year, $2.5 million-deal. While he’s only hit .210 the past two seasons, the White Sox have their eyes trained on Avila’s .345 on-base percentage against righties in that span.
“Even though the numbers have declined a little bit, he still does possess the ability to get on base and provide some power against right-handed pitching,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “It’s not as strong as when he was totally healthy a few years ago, and hopefully not as strong as it will be in the next several years in his career. But there are some skills he does possess, even when he was struggling.”
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Health figures to be the biggest key to the equation.
Over the past four seasons, Avila has only surpassed 120 games once. In 2015, he was limited to 67 games after going on the disabled list from May 8-July 2 with a bone bruise in his left knee. Avila also is believed to have suffered up to three concussions in 2014 as a result of foul tips hitting his mask, though he played 124 games that year.
But Avila, who has a career .345 OBP, including .358 versus righties, is worth the risk. They don’t expect him to turn in a .295/.389/.506 slash line with 19 homers and 82 RBIs like he did in 2011, when he finished 12th in the MVP vote. But last season, White Sox catchers were 17th in the majors with a .656 OPS.
Tyler Flowers, Geovany Soto, who signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday, and Rob Brantly also combined for a .280 OBP against right-handers, which ranked 23rd among catching combos.
Hahn said the White Sox are satisfied with Avila’s health after running him through tests and investigating his medical history.
“Our doctors are very optimistic about where he is right now,” Hahn said. “Obviously there’s a little bit of a health risk with any guy, much less someone who is coming off injury issues the last couple years. But it is one of the areas -- knock on wood -- that we’ve been pretty good at in terms of keeping guys healthy and getting them on the field.”
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The White Sox won’t try to determine playing time for Avila and Flowers until closer to spring training when the roster has been finalized. But Avila’s game calling and catch-and-throw abilities won’t hurt his chances. Over the past two seasons, Avila has thrown out 33.8 percent of stolen base attempts and he’s at 29 percent for his career.
He also was the starting catcher for a team that reached the postseason in four straight seasons (2011-14) based largely upon the dominance of its pitching staff. The combination of the two -- along with Avila’s strong leadership qualities -- has Hahn comfortable the White Sox will improve.
“Part of the reason Alex had appeal to us is he had a set of well-rounded catching skills and ability,” Hahn said. “He potentially can help us from an offensive standpoint. Again, get him completely healthy and maintaining that health and using him properly in terms of matchups is part of that. But he certainly has potential to improve us there offensively while at the same time making us solid defensively.”