Updated: Feb 6
The Nationals have their second catcher in the fold in veteran Alex Avila, who played 23 games for the Minnesota Twins last season. The 34-year-old hit only .184 in the shortened 2020 campaign, but has a career on-base percentage of .348. He also has hit double-digit homers in five of his 12 seasons and had 47 or more RBIs five times.
Avila knows his goal on offense is to keep the line moving and continue the inning so the leadoff hitter gets another shot.
"Most likely I'll be hitting towards the bottom of the order,” Avila said during this week’s Zoom video call. “I don't think I'll be hitting fourth for this team. My job at that point is to turn the lineup over. Over my career I have been on both ends of the spectrum as far as hitting value to the team. I have been at the top of my position and I have been towards the bottom and a lot in between. So I try to stick to my strengths. I've got some power so I'm probably going to run into a few homers. Getting on base has kind of been strength of mine and turn the lineup over."
Avila has earned 509 walks in 1,018 career games. As a catcher that knows first hand what his pitcher is trying to do, learned to not bite on bad pitches. He credits one of the best hitters of all-time for the knowledge on how to find the best pitch to swing at.
"That's something that I've always had,” Avila said of the free passes. “Even from high school and college, just an emphasis on swinging at strikes. That was always something that was embedded. A long time ago when I was a kid I read 'The Science of Hitting' (John Underwood), the Ted William's book. One of the things that he preached in that book (was look for your pitch), and that was something that had always stuck with me. I always felt that gave me the best chance to be successful is to make sure that I was swinging at pitches in the strike zone, and I wouldn't go out of the strike zone. That's resulted in quite a few walks.
"At the same time, it's a give and take - sometimes especially with pitchers nowadays, and the stuff they are featuring - you are gonna end up striking out a little but more than you would like to. So there is a balance there to try to limit those strikeouts, but also still be patient enough to be able to draw walks and get on base as well as be able to get the hits when you need them and drive in runs."
Not many players sing the praises of the uneven 2020 season, which was limited to 60 scheduled games due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Avila believes his body is in better shape than it might have been through the rigors of a full season, even with the Twins playoff run.
"This offseason hasn't really changed much than other offseasons, aside from last year,” Avila said. “Basically, (I) took the needed time off from the beginning when we got eliminated from the playoffs and then just started working out again. My day consists of working out, going to the field here and there, hitting and stuff and then a lot of kids activities and little fishing mixed in.
"My body feels good. To be honest with you after the season we had last year, it feels really good. With the shortened season, even though it was very intense down the stretch, the body didn't have to play as many games as usual."
Avila signed a one-year deal to come to D.C. But does the veteran backstop believe he can play more than one or two more seasons, and stay with the Nats?
"I would love for this to be a multiple year kind of thing,” Avila said. “Obviously, performance dictates that and hopefully I can perform well and be enough of a clubhouse presence that they would like to bring me back. But this year is the priority."
Avila’s Twins battled the Indians and the White Sox to the season’s final week for the AL Central crown in 2020, finishing 36-24. That final record was good enough to win the division by just one game over Cleveland and Chicago, both finishing at 35-25. The NL East only had two teams above .500 last year, but Avila expects his new division assignment to be a competitive struggle in 2021.
"I see probably the toughest division in baseball,” Avila said. “Each team has done a little bit to get a little bit better. They were already really good to begin with. And with the Marlins kind of surprising everybody in what they were able to do I think they are no slouch in the division either. The way I look at it is it's the toughest division which usually brings the best out in people and that's what you hope for. As long as you come together as a team you give yourself the best opportunity."
Avila’s career slash line is .235/.348/.394 with 104 homers and 388 RBIs, and a career OPS of .742. He has played 902 games at catcher, 46 at first base and 18 as the designated hitter over 12 seasons. By contrast, Kurt Suzuki’s slash line in 14 seasons is .259/.316/.392 with 133 homers and 699 RBIs. Suzuki, 37, spent the past two seasons with the Nats, and has now moved onto the Angels.