Avila will start season in Majors

Avila will start season in Majors

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' catcher of the future will be their backup catcher of the present. Alex Avila will open the season in the big leagues, the Tigers decided Tuesday morning.

The move became official once the team assigned veteran backup catcher Robinzon Diaz to Minor League camp. Avila received the call from his father, Detroit assistant general manager Al Avila, on Monday night.

The Tigers also optioned shortstop Brent Dlugach to Triple-A Toledo, and infielder/outfielder Jeff Larish and relievers Josh Rainwater and Robbie Weinhardt were assigned to Minor League camp. The moves, along with Tuesday's trade that sent Nate Robertson to Florida, reduce the Tigers' roster to 26 players; the club has until Sunday to finalize its 25-man roster but is expected to do that within the next day or two.

The moves with Dlugach and Larish narrow the battle for the final positional roster spot to utility man Don Kelly and outfielder Clete Thomas. That decision was expected to come Tuesday, but won't happen until Wednesday or Thursday. Thomas remains out with a deep bone bruise in his right shoulder.

For the backup catching spot, the choice was essentially a decision on Avila, who has had only one full season as a pro after converting to catcher a few years ago at the University of Alabama. The Tigers know that he can hit in the big leagues, and his .378 average this spring hasn't disappointed.

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The Tigers had to make their best judgment as to whether Avila was better off catching a couple of days per week in Detroit behind starter Gerald Laird or catching every day at Toledo.

Diaz was essentially the backup option if the Tigers chose the latter.

"I think we just made the decision," manager Jim Leyland said. "We're probably standing in his way of progress to some extent, but we think we're taking the best team. The ideal scenario might've been to send him out and let him catch more, but we do think we're taking the best team, and that's what we're supposed to do."

Avila spent the final two months of the 2009 season with the Tigers and provided an offensive boost with his left-handed power bat. However, he caught only sparingly in September behind Laird, whose defense and game-calling skills made him a regular option despite his offensive struggles.

Laird has shown strong signs of being a better hitter this spring, but the Tigers still value Avila for his bat. He'll also likely work on his catching on the side in Detroit.

"I think he's a good left-handed bat right now," Leyland said. "I think that's his best strength."

By getting the scoop Monday night, Avila was able to get a good night's sleep in advance of a full game at catcher Tuesday. He went 1-for-4 with an RBI.

He has been to three Opening Days in Detroit as a fan, so he knows the experience.

"It's going to be a different experience from being in the stands to in the dugout," Avila said. "It's going to be a little like last year when I got called up. I had always been in that clubhouse, but to actually go in there and [see] my name's on the back of the jersey, it's a whole different experience."

As for picking up more catching experience, Avila is probably going to work on the side during the season, either with third-base coach and former catcher Gene Lamont or with other coaches.

"Last year when I got called up, on days I wouldn't catch, I would always try to do something, whether it was blocking, throwing, working on footwork or just catching the pitchers in the bullpen on their side sessions, just to stay sharp and continue to develop a little bit. It's never the same as it is in a game, but you get it as close as you can."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.