It's hard to think about 2010 with the Tigers in the middle of a pennant race but there are a couple of interesting situations which I want to address. The first one is actually affecting the 2009 season and that's Alex Avila's emergence as a Major League catcher. When it was first announced on Tuesday night that he was being called up from AA Erie to replace Dusty Ryan as the second catcher, my first reaction was that it was a desperation move made by a team badly in need of an offensive spark. I don't want to get overly excited about two games but the move looks great so far - four hits, two doubles and a homer in eight at bats.
For now, the plan is for Avila to catch any time Rick Porcello or Amando Galarraga starts. Gerald Laird will start when any of the other three starters pitch. So, Laird is still the primary receiver but Avila will be playing more than the previous two backups, Dane Sardinha and Ryan. If Avila hits well and shows that he can adequately handle the catching position, we could be looking at a platoon by 2010 with the left-handed batting Avila getting the bulk of the starts. Yes, that is still a big if.
The seventh year veteran Laird is an excellent defensive catcher who leads the majors with a 41.1 caught stealing percentage. He also has the reputation of being a good handler of pitchers. The problem is that he is batting just .228 and his .646 OPS is third worst among catchers. Laird has a .616 OPS versus right-handers and a .749 OPS versus left-handers which is why a left-handed hitting platoon partner would be ideal.
The 22 year old Avila batted .264/.365/.450 with an impressive 52/77 walk/strikeout ratio for the SeaWolves prior to he callup. In addition, Alex had a .865 OPS against Eastern League right-handers. It's not always going to be as easy as it has looked the last two games but it is expected that he will hit Major League pitching well enough to be a starting Major League catcher over the long term. While there are still questions about his defense (pitch blocking in particular), he is improving and is expected to become a solid defender in time.
Again, it's just two games and he is just one year removed from the first year player draft and playing a position which generally requires a lot of development. I had expected him to potentially start by perhaps 2011. However, if the Tigers think he is ready enough to start twice every five games in the middle of a pennant race, one has to consider the possibility that he could be the number one catcher by 2010.
The other topic of interest is the second base situation. The 33 year old Placido Polanco is still a top defender - six runs saved above average according to both Ultimate Zone Rating (FanGraphs) and the Plus/Minus system (Bill James Online). However, his .708 OPS is lowest among qualifying American League second basemen and tonight's four hit game did not change that.
Polanco is a free agent after the season and the Tigers have not discussed an extension as of yet. I think it's unlikely that they will offer him a mult-year deal at this stage of his career. It is possible that they will offer him arbitration and hope that he either accepts and stays with the team one more year or refuses giving the Tigers draft pick compensation. According to Eddie Bajek's projected Elias rankings now housed at MLB Trade Rumors, Polanco will almost certainly be at least a type B free agent.. Since Dave Dombrowski does not like arbitation, I'm not sure of the likelihood of that scenario but it seems like the smart thing to do from my viewpoint.
If Polanco signs with another team, then who becomes the starting second baseman in 2010? The leading candidate would be Scott Sizemore who has has a very strong season at AA and AAA this year. The 24 year old right-handed batter is hitting a combined .309 with 48 extra base hits in 401 at bats for Erie and Toledo. Like Avila, Sizemore has a good eye and a solid 54/75 BB/K ratio.
Sizemore has the potential to be an offensive upgrade over Polanco but questions remain about his defense. He is regarded by most astute observers as an average second baseman with decent tools across the board but nothing special defensively.
Again, we don't want to get ahead of ourselves but we could potentially be seeing two new young starters in key spots on opening day next season.