Aviles embraces, thrives in super utility role

Veteran is willing to start, come off bench for sake of Tigers' success

Aviles embraces, thrives in super utility role

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Michiganders have their fair share of quirks that make them unique. They make weird left turns on divided roads. They love Vernor's soda. They're stubborn about their Coney Island loyalties.

And in baseball, like their Coney Islands, Michiganders have similarly strong opinions about their role players. Don Kelly's extended ovation on Sunday at Joker Marchant Stadium as a visiting player with the Marlins showed that.

No matter what Mike Aviles does this season, he has too much history elsewhere to garner a strong opinion. He has beaten up on the Tigers for too many years from other stops in the American League Central. But if there's one fair comparison for Aviles with Don Kelly, it's that Aviles takes the role very seriously.

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Before adding Justin Upton was ever a realistic thought, the Tigers signed Aviles to a one-year, $2 million contract in December. Utility work has given Aviles a second career.

"I train to play every day," said Aviles, who started at third and delivered an RBI single in a 6-5 win over the Rays on Tuesday. "I come ready to play every day. If I don't, I don't, but at least mentally, I know I'm in the game and ready to play if I have to get in the game that day. I feel like I've never lost the mentality of a starter for that reason."

That's the mentality Kelly took into his pregame preparation, which allowed him to fill the role for so long. For Aviles, it's a continuation of the days when he was a regular.

Long before Aviles became a utility player, he topped all Major League rookies in 2008 with a .325 average to go with 27 doubles, 10 homers and an .833 OPS in just over half a season as a shortstop with the Royals. The next season, he underwent Tommy John surgery.

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The Royals traded for Yuniesky Betancourt, shifting Aviles to second base upon his return, then traded for Alcides Escobar a year and a half later. Second-base prospect Chris Getz arrived in 2011. The Royals traded Aviles to Boston at the non-waiver Trade Deadline that season.

"In all honesty, I kind of figured that might happen at some point," Aviles said. "I'm kind of blessed with, cursed with a little bit of athleticism, so it's just one of those things where there's not many guys you can find that can move around all over the place and be able to do it relatively well for the most part. It's kind of tough. For me, luckily, I've been able to figure out how to move around from here to there, outfield, infield, and still be able to impact a game -- hopefully not negatively. It's kind of hard to bounce around like that and actually feel comfortable, but I feel like it helped me in that sense."

Aviles is still bouncing around, with his 35th birthday approaching on Sunday. He played shortstop when the Tigers had split-squad games last week and showed the range of a 20-something-year-old against the Yankees. He filled in at third base on Tuesday when Nick Castellanos was sidelined with back tightness and likely will do so again on Wednesday. Before the Tigers signed Upton, Aviles was an option for a right-handed bat in left field.

"Being a utility guy is very tough," Tigers coach Omar Vizquel said, "because you have to really stay sharp at all the positions. Your arm angle at shortstop might be different than at second base or third base, so you have to keep working at all the positions."

It starts, Aviles said, with attitude.

"The hard part of it is when you're a guy who wants to play every day," Aviles said. "I did, too. I still do. But that's just the nature of the beast. Hey, I'm good at what I do. Let's just keep doing what we do and bring that to a winning team, and try to win ballgames. Because everybody knows that everybody's a piece of this puzzle."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.