Expect Miguel Cabrera to bat third for the Tigers this season. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
New Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has 70 days to get a handle on his new baseball home and how best to arrange some furniture ahead of Opening Day at Comerica Park.
Most of us, of course, have our own thoughts about where to stick the sofa, how to optimize precious space, and where, in relationship to the picture-window’s light you might care to place that big piece of framed art.
It’s another way of saying: We have ideas for your batting order, Skipper.
Leadoff batter is of foremost concern as the Tigers prepare for their spring-camp auditions in Lakeland, Fla., which begins in three weeks (23 days to be precise, but when the temperature is zero, three weeks sounds closer).
And the winner is...
Austin Jackson could return to his old spot atop the Tigers’ totem pole, but we have other plans for a center fielder who should be a steadier hitter in 2014 and who figures to provide RBI muscle deeper into the lineup.
Kinsler is the easy choice at leadoff because of his career .349 on-base percentage, as well as legs that should be worth 25 or more stolen bases.
Batting second: Andy Dirks.
It makes sense for one specific reason: On most days the Tigers will confront a right-handed starter, and Dirks bats left-handed. Assuming Kinsler follows past scripts and makes it to first base every three at-bats or fewer, there will be a right-side infield hole as the first baseman attempts to hold Kinsler hostage at the bag.
That leaves a lovely gap between first and second. Dirks, whose knee is now pain-free, should be able to steer his share of sharp ground balls through that unguarded border crossing and steadily become more of the near- .300 hitter he was before he silently endured last season’s aches.
The Tigers’ third hitter is a guy named Miguel Cabrera, and unless Ausmus has some MIT-based mathematical theory on why Cabrera belongs at some spot other than No. 3, we can assume a man who nearly won back-to-back Triple Crowns will be of best service with a guaranteed at-bat in each and every first inning of each and every game.
Your cleanup hitter is Victor Martinez. He is not the home run hitter teams ideally deploy at the No. 4 slot, but he is a .300-plus hitter who bats with equal grace from either side of the plate. Stationing a switch-hitter of Martinez’s artistry at cleanup prevents opposing managers from gaining any great matchup advantages against the heart of Detroit’s lineup.
Martinez should also be adept at keeping a potential big inning rolling, which brings the interior decorators to that next segment of Ausmus’ lineup design.
Batting fifth is Alex Avila. His many critics will be horrified, but this is where the Tigers catcher belongs, assuming he returns to the brand of hitter he has shown he can be (.876 OPS during the 2013 season’s second half; .895 OPS during his All-Star season of 2011).
Avila, who next week turns 27, could and should bat near .300 with a .500-plus slugging percentage. Those are numbers nicely tailored to the No. 5 niche. For now, consider Avila your man at No. 5.
The sixth hitter in Ausmus’ arsenal is Austin Jackson. This should work for various reasons. Jackson’s history suggests a robust 2014 season. He tends to be an every-other-year batter, which bodes well for the coming season, not only because he mucked it up a bit (.272 batting average) in 2013, but also because he is two weeks from his 27th birthday.
This should be prime time for Jackson. His foot-trigger swing mechanics can be ironed out, and with power more and more becoming part of his profile, Jackson’s in line for a bold season a year before he welcomes free agency (autumn, 2015).
Batting seventh: A bit of a surprise — Nick Castellanos. Ausmus might prefer protecting his rookie third baseman by planting him in a safer, less pressurized, No. 8 spot in his lineup. But that would be a potential waste of Castellanos and his right-handed bat.
No one knows if Castellanos will hit straight from the chute or whether he will need 40 games to get his bearings. Some aren’t so sure he will hit anywhere in 2014 but at Triple A Toledo.
But this is a bet worth making. Castellanos will end the year with numbers in the vicinity of .270, boosted by 30 or so doubles. He has gap power sufficient to drive in Jackson, Avila or Martinez or any foot soldier who happens to be on base.
Go with Castellanos at No. 7. Show confidence in a kid who plays older than his age (21). The dividend could be big in a lineup that will need its rookie third baseman to have a rookie-of-the-year season.
Our eighth contestant is Torii Hunter. You could always bat him second against left-handers, but Hunter turns 39 this year and there is no harm in wanting a seasoned stick at the eighth slot. Something about No. 8 and Hunter seem to fit.
Ninth: Jose Iglesias. And don’t be fooled. Iglesias is a better hitter than too many fans care to acknowledge. With his wheels, he provides a kind of second leadoff batter at the tail-end of Ausmus’ attack.
Of course, there will be no set lineup in 2014, all because days off will be part of the program and because the Tigers have plans for platooning Dirks and Rajai Davis in left field.
On those days when the Tigers challenge a left-handed starter, Davis or Hunter could bat second in place of Dirks. Jackson, too, might show during spring camp he is more comfortable and — because of his potential slugging percentage — a more attractive option at his old leadoff spot.
But the early inklings are Kinsler will bat first and Jackson will drop deeper into a lineup not as potent, perhaps, as it was during the days when Prince Fielder was in Detroit.
That it will have less thunder is probably inevitable. That it will be more interesting — and even more productive — is the intriguing thought as bags begin to be packed for that lovely trek to Florida.
Brad Ausmus' possible Opening Day lineup
1. Ian Kinsler, 2B
2. Andy Dirks*, LF
3. Miguel Cab rera, 1B
4. Victor Martinez, DH
5. Alex Avila, C
6. Austin Jackson, CF
7. Nick Castellanos, 3B
8. Torii Hunter, RH
9. Jose Iglesias, SS
*Rajai Davis or Hunter will likely bat second against a left-handed starter.