July 31, 2014

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Indians’ Mike Aviles has the talent, versatility and team-first attitude to be the perfect role player

Cleveland Indians' Mike Aviles jogs home after a solo home run off. Aviles' ability to play just about any position keeps his spot on the roster secure. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Cleveland Indians’ Mike Aviles jogs home after a solo home run off. Aviles’ ability to play just about any position keeps his spot on the roster secure. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — After infielder Mike Aviles started in center field March 16 against the Chicago Cubs, he had a brief conversation with Indians manager Terry Francona.

The exchange Aviles recounted revealed his willingness to do anything to help his team, even though he wasn’t sure he’d met Francona’s standards.

“How did you feel?” Francona asked Aviles.

“I felt fine. Did I look OK?” Aviles replied.

“You look like you play there,” Francona said.

“That’s the look I was going for,” Aviles said.

“Don’t be a liability, that’s my main focus,” Aviles said the next day. “When I’m in the outfield, catch the ball and hit the cutoff man. When you think, that takes you on a downward spiral.”

After five years in the major leagues, Aviles has come to accept that he might never be an everyday shortstop. But at age 33, he’s found there is more to baseball than that.

“At first you do struggle bouncing around,” Aviles said last week.

“It’s more because of the difference in positions. The more I play, the more I realize that winning is a lot more important than personal satisfaction. Playing every single day at one position would be great, but I’d rather win and play multiple positions.”

Francona was Aviles’ boss with the Boston Red Sox in 2011 and last season with the Indians. Francona knows Aviles is not content moving around the diamond.

“That’s the fine line you walk, trying to find guys who are good enough to play every day, will accept not playing every day, stay ready, and when they’re not playing not only not disrupt but help,” Francona said. “When you get guys like that, you’ve got something pretty special.”

Last season, Aviles started 19 consecutive games at shortstop when a quadriceps strain landed Asdrubal Cabrera on the disabled list. For the year, Aviles made 35 starts at short, 37 at third base, 11 at second base and four in left field. A career .273 hitter, he batted .252 with nine homers and 46 RBIs.

This spring, Aviles has started in center and right field. His position on the 25-man roster is secure. The Indians could open March 31 in Oakland with designated hitter Jason Giambi and center fielder Michael Bourn on the disabled list. Versatility will be valued, and no Indian might be able to do more than Aviles.

“Not catching, nooooo, catching and pitching, I don’t think that’s for me,” Aviles said. “Everywhere else is fair game.”

After being traded from the Toronto Blue Jays with catcher Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers in November, 2012, Aviles quickly learned what kind of clubhouse he had joined in Cleveland.

“We’ve got a lot of good players at every position,” Aviles said. “If my role is coming in and giving guys days off, that’s fine. Bottom line is I want to win.

“Could I make a big stink and want to go play somewhere else? That’s everybody. But am I going to be happy? No. I’m going to be happy right here. We have a good brotherhood. We have something to build on. Being part of something special is more important than anything else.”

Francona knows he occasionally puts Aviles in a situation he’s not experienced enough to handle. Francona still feels guilty over a Red Sox game in 2011, when he threw him in the outfield and a poor play made by Aviles ended up on the television highlights.

“That was my fault. I shouldn’t have put him in that situation,” Francona said. “Because it was Mikey, I felt bad for him.”

Aviles wasn’t sure of the specific game, but he said the five he played in the outfield for the Red Sox that year were a challenge. He’s played in 599 major league games and only 10 have been in the outfield, with six starts. He admitted the Green Monster intimidated him.

“I think it was a ball in left field in Fenway,” Aviles said of the game Francona cited. “Everybody knows that wall is a little tricky. If you haven’t been out there, it talks to you.”

Francona respects Aviles for his professionalism and the contributions he continues to make to cement their trust.

“Sometimes you’ll see guys get to a point where they earn it, then they’ll level off,” Francona said. “In reality, you have to earn it every day and he does a really good job of that.”

Francona said the true test of a player’s attitude comes in a blowout game when it’s time for the manager to start substituting.

“I can’t tell you how many times the guy you’re putting in is ‘Oh, all right,’” Francona said. “Mikey, when I look down, he’s ready. He understands those at-bats will help him and he’s helping our ballclub. The next day he might help us by starting.

“He can have a nice career. It may not be exactly what he envisioned, but he can still have a really nice career.”