In 2008, Mike Aviles was a 27-year-old minor league infielder in the Royals’ system who had to get a lucky break for the club to play him over this historically terrible Tony Pena, Jr. Yesterday, the soon-to-be 32-year-old Aviles got his first multi-year, guaranteed deal with Cleveland, which bought out his last two years of arbitration for $6 million and a club option for 2015. It has been quite the odyssey for Aviles, who was drafted by the Royals seventh round in 2003, in large part because he would sign for a $1,000 signing bonus (David Glass is great, isn’t he? Let’s give a hand to David Glass, folks!), has seen himself passed over for the likes of the aforementioned Pena, Yuniesky Betancourt and Chris Getz, and was traded twice this winter, including once for a manager.
Despite all that, Aviles has shown himself to be a useful player — and while this contract is hardly huge in itself — it might have interesting implications for how Cleveland’s roster might shake out in the near future.
As a hitter, Aviles has his ups and downs: from his surprising out-of-nowhere .325/.354/.480 rookie performance with the Royals in 2008 to his terrible .250/.282/.381 (74 wRC+) line for the Red Sox in 2012. But he’s basically been the same hitter every season. He’s a hacker with above-average contact skills and a bit of pop, but neither in enough quantities to make up for his lack of walks (career 4.2% walk rate). As with most hitters of this sort, when his BABIP is high, as in 2008 and 2010, he is an average or above-average, which is nice for a middle infielder. When his BABIP is low, as it has been in the past two seasons, things get pretty ugly — and he has to lean on fielding, which is hard to pin down.
When Aviles was in the Royals system, his reputation was he couldn’t play shortstop all that well, and his bat would not really play at second or third. However, he actually looked pretty good at short when he finally came up in 2008, and the Red Sox obviously felt like he could handle the position well enough on a full-time basis in 2012. There are good reasons to think most shortstops have the skills to perform better at second or third base, but Aviles has never seemed to be as comfortable at either of those positions as he has at shortstop (and hey, you can’t move or bench a stud shortstop like Yuniesky Betancourt, right?). This strange phenomenon is not unique to Aviles — after all, Alexei Ramirez is a fine defensive shortstop who did not look that great at second — but it is surprising, nonetheless. Maybe it is his particular skill set, or maybe he just needs to get used to being a utility player.
This is not quite all there is to Aviles. He seems to have more than his fair share of memorably embarrassing gaffes on the base paths. These incidents overshadow the fact that Aviles is actually an above-average base runner. He’s about an break-even base stealer, but he does well enough doing things like taking the extra base to add a run or two over a full season. On a more subjective level, Aviles has developed a reputation as a good clubhouse guy who also interacts well with fans. As a robotic, emotionless saber-fan, I obviously completely dismiss the relevance of that stuff, of course, but I bet some teams value it.
Aviles is probably about an average player, even if his fielding abilities are enigmatic and his offense is streaky. What appears to be going on, contract-wise, is Aviles got two years of guaranteed security in exchange for a third-year club option. But this is where some of the confusion begins. Aviles is better than most utility infielders, and while he is not a first tier starter, he could start for some teams. If he had a clear starting spot for Cleveland, the deal might make some sense. Cleveland, though, is set at second (Jason Kipnis), shortstop (Asdrubal Cabrera) and third (Lonnie Chisenhall). Why would the team want to guarantee multiple years to a player who is significantly older than all three of those players, and probably not as good?
Depth is nice, and having better-than-replacement players during a rebuilding phase is not simply a waste of money. But Aviles is not Nick Swisher. There is no obvious place for him to play, and he’s not as good as Swisher. It is not as if he has a lot of trade value on his own. Of course, someone could get hurt, or one of the younger guys might tank and get set to the minors. However, those a pretty typical, and would not in themselves really have justified giving a multi-year deal to Aviles.
A more intriguing possibility, as mentioned by Jordan Bastian on Twitter, is Cleveland may be looking to trade Cabrera at some point between now and the begining of the 2014 season. Cabrera is no defensive whiz, but his bat plays well at shortstop. Even at $10 million in 2014, he would be a good deal at shortstop for a contender, and thus has real trade value. Chisenhall and Kipnis, on the other hand, are players a rebuilding and Cleveland obviously wants to keep around.
Aviles is good enough to be an inexpensive stopgap during a rebuilding period if Cleveland decides to trade Cabrera. Cleveland has a couple of good shortstop prospects in Francisco Lindor and Dorssys Paulino, but neither is even 20 nor has either played above A-ball yet. How they (or some other player) develop is anyone’s guess, but by getting the club option on Aviles for 2015, Cleveland at least gets themselves a bit more risk-free security while they rebuild yet again.