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Who is Alex Avila, and why did the Arizona Diamondbacks sign him?

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One of the major holes in the team appears to have been addressed.

Chicago Cubs v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The dual-headed catcher beast formed by Chris Iannetta and Jeff Mathis worked out very nicely for the Diamondbacks in 2017, with Iannetta providing the offensive oomph, and Mathis framing pitches for all he was worth. The former, however, was a free-agent at the beginning of this off-season. Chris opted to sign a two-year, $8.5 million contract with Colorado, the team who drafted him, and for whom Iannetta played from 2006-11. That left the D-backs looking at a platoon of Mathis with... uh, Chris Herrmann or John Ryan Murphy, not exactly the stuff of nightmares for opposing pitchers.

But the signing of Avila should go quite some way to replacing Iannetta’s offensive production, and on that basis at least, looks like being a solid signing for Arizona. Last season, Avila appeared in a total of 112 games between the Tigers and the Cubs (being traded by his dad, Detroit GM Al Avila!), and put up a very solid offensive line of .264/.387/.447, an OPS+ of 119. Overall in his career, which began in 2009, Avila’s triple-slash is .243/.351/.401, a 105 OPS+. For comparison, Iannetta’s OPS+ last year and career were 114 and 100 respectively, so Avila was five points better in each. It’ll be interesting to see how Avila’s contract compares in cost to Iannetta’s with Colorado.

We’re still waiting for details of that at the time of writing (there’ll also need to be a 40-man roster move made). But MLB Trade Rumors was projecting two years, $16 million for Avila (albeit at the beginning of the winter, before things got... odd!). If it is indeed in this range, the signing would appear a bit of a budget-buster for Arizona, who were already at or near their self-declared payroll ceiling of around $120 million for 2018. As Michael mentioned in the comments on the previous post, either the payroll will be higher, or this is some kind of precursor to a move which will free up a roughly equal amount: a trade of Patrick Corbin would be the most obvious candidate for the latter.

The metrics are considerably more skeptical about Avila when it comes to defense. In pure pitch framing, he was rated among the ten worst in the majors last year (note, the linked table splits his time with Detroit and Chicago into two separate lines - both below average), and Avila has been below average every season since 2014. More generally, Baseball Prospectus ranked Avila 105th defensively among the 110 MLB catchers for 2017, valuing him at 11 runs below average. The numbers were not much kinder for Alex in 2016 (92nd of 104) or 2015 (101st of 109). Perhaps we can get Jeff Mathis to teach him a trick or two there...

With Avila being a left-handed hitter (though, of course, a right-hander thrower!), this will be a natural platoon with Mathis - at least, providing the team wants Avila to get the majority of the playing time. He is certainly stronger against right-handed pitching, with a career OPS of .789, compared to just .611 against southpaws. However, we may see that handling the pitching staff remains a higher priority with regard to Torey Lovullo’s line-up construction. For example, up until his injury last season, Mathis was Zack Greinke’s personal catcher, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this remains a factor in figuring out who starts behind the plate for Arizona.

In this regard, I note that Avila publicly stated that being on a playoff contender was more important to him personally than playing time. He told Sirius XM Radio earlier this winter, “The number one thing is having an opportunity to get to the playoffs. I’ve told teams this, my agent this. I have no issue going to a team and being a backup. I have no issue being a platoon player... For me, it’s about the opportunity to win.” In terms of losers, John Ryan Murphy is probably the biggest one: our likely back-up catcher is now more probably #4 on the depth-chart, presuming the team keeps Herrmann on the roster for his versatility.

Sean is digging into some of the batted ball and Statcast numbers about Avila, so expect more on that at some point tomorrow.