February 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Five Tigers hitters who need better stroke of fortune in 2014

Lakeland, Fla. Ė Most of the national scribes invading Lakeland during the past 10 days have had two over-arching questions about the 2014 Tigers.

They want to know how Brad Ausmus is doing as the new skipper. And theyíre curious about Detroitís offense. They wonder how the Tigers will score runs with Prince Fielder no longer in the batting orderís belly.

In those two concerns, they join much of the Tigers fan base ó and maybe the Tigers front office, as well.

As for the simpler issue, Ausmus is fine. And will be. Even as a rookie manager he has the stuff to run a team and a game. He can break apart the intricacies of nine innings or more of baseball because of his 18 seasons as a big-league catcher.

He wonít get caught off-guard by a pitching situation or by an offensive or defensive challenge. He is bright. He is prepared. He will have analyzed opponent data to an unprecedented degree in Tigers managerial annals. He will be on top of game complexities.

His skills running a ballclub, in the many general ways a manager must be proficient, have been a nonissue during spring campís first week and should in time be solid-plus. Players respect him. He knows when and where to be hands-on. He is displaying the same brand of command Mike Matheny evinced during his rookie season as a manager last year with the Cardinals.

The Tigers offense is by far a deeper mystery. But based upon the projections allowed for age and past track records, the Tigers probably will be better at scoring runs than would appear to be the case five weeks before Opening Day.

It wonít look that way in the early going ó not if April treats Ausmusí team the way a cold-weather town punishes most offenses. But as a long season unfurls, the Tigers have a chance to score as many runs as they did with last yearís huskier batting order.

The projection is based on more team speed, which should move runners into position and across the plate with more ease than the stone-footed 2013 group could ever have managed.

Another factor should be bounce-back seasons for some players who stand to better their 2013 report cards. The comeback crew would include (batting average and on-base plus slugging percentages included in parentheses):

Austin Jackson (.272, .754): Jackson batted .293 in his rookie year, 2010, and hit .300 in 2012. He came in at .249 in 2011, which suggests a man who just turned 27 has a thing for even-number years.

It also speaks to his talent level, even as you consider those two sour seasons. If he were pushing 30, making a case for Jackson to hit at or near .300 would be a bad bet. But a year ahead of what should become his prime as a big-leaguer it is more likely Jackson will hit something close to .300 and that his OPS will crowd the .856 he threw together in 2012.

Jackson figures to drop in the order, maybe to that No. 6 or No. 7 spot, which should be beneficial. Itís a more relaxed perch, as he acknowledged was the case when Jim Leyland mercifully repositioned him during last Octoberís playoffs. And if his slugging percentage settles in or around his 2012 number (.479), the Tigers center fielder and former leadoff batter will find that RBIs, rather than a leadoff manís on-base focus, will be the dividend.

Alex Avila (.227, .693): Avilaís profile is similar to Jacksonís. He turned 27 nearly a month ago. He has strong seasons threaded throughout his five years in the big leagues, beginning with 2011, when he batted .295 with an .895 OPS. During the second half of 2013, Avila batted .303 with an .856 OPS, numbers bested by only one other Tigers hitter: Miguel Cabrera. Because he has hit for extended times, and because he is nearing his prime, a percentage estimate is Avila will produce more in tune with his better years and half-years.

He looks like a No. 5 hitter waiting to happen. Critics will snort, but it would be no surprise if, by mid-season, thatís where he lands in Ausmusí batting order.

Nick Castellanos (.278, 18 at-bats): April could be a mess for a new third baseman who next month turns 22. Castellanos is a Florida native who since turning professional has made a habit of cold starts.

Against big-league pitching, with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, Castellanos could be a walking, talking Cold Start. But it wonít be April that defines him, or his debut as Detroitís new third baseman. It will be how he evolves and how he handles pitching from the get-go.

If he is over-matched, Castellanos will need time at Triple A Toledo and Cabrera will return to third with anyone from Victor Martinez to Jordan Lennerton taking over at first.

But the notion Castellanos is in over his head, even at this tender time in his big-league gestation, is not supported by skills or by past performances, including last Septemberís cameo with the Tigers.

If you are writing an advanced script for Castellanos, hereís one observerís likely scenario:

He shakes off a bumpy April, at the plate and in the field, and begins settling in at some point during May. He hits reasonably well to very well the rest of the season. He finishes in the neighborhood of .270, with 12 or more home runs and 75-80 RBIs.

Thatís a deft start for a talented kid now being planted at third base. And thatís all because a club familiar with his skills believes he will, in fact, finish somewhere in the vicinity of those above numbers.

Andy Dirks (.256, .686): This is where track records, including minor league years, must be studied. Dirks batted .375 in 22 games at Toledo in 2010. He hit .325 in 41 games at Toledo in 2011, which earned him a one-hour drive to Comerica Park, where as a Tigers rookie he had a .251 batting average and .703 OPS.

It got interesting in 2012 when Dirks batted .322 in 88 games and had a hearty OPS of .857.

He promptly came in at .256 a year ago and lots of folks guessed this was another case of a fourth outfielder overachieving until pitchers figured him out and he, as they say, regressed to the mean.

But that wasnít the whole story. He played all of 2013 with a bad knee, which since has healed.

The racing-form experts would, in most cases, bet on Dirks, having just turned 28, piling up digits more in keeping with 2012, especially when he is slated to see steady stretches of right-handed pitching.

That would be the supposition here. Based upon the relative ascent of his numbers since he signed out of Wichita State in 2008, Dirks is in for a year more in tune with 2012. His age and larger samplings indicate as much.

Jose Iglesias (.259, .654): The numbers listed are slightly misleading, in two respects. Iglesias batted .330 in 63 games for the Red Sox. After his July trade to Detroit, the Tigers shortstop hit .259, creating a somewhat illusory season average of .303.

The projection for 2014 is relatively easy. Iglesias isnít a .330 hitter. But he should be a stitch better than the .259 batter he was for the Tigers, again, because of his athleticism and bat speed ó and the fact he is a year older (24) than he was in 2013.

Because of his legs he gets an uncommon number of infield hits. But also because of that quick bat and his rising age and muscle he canít be played overly shallow by outfielders whose cheating could send Iglesias to third base ó or beyond ó if they get too ambitious.

In fact, if youíre into truly trivial trivia, itís worth risking a shekel that the Tigersí next inside-the-park home run will be struck by Iglesias.

You can expect also that a young player with as much adrenalin as blood will try in 2014 to do too much in a bid to hit balls onto Brush Street. But discipline will develop. And as he learns to throttle back a better hitter will emerge. It might not happen this season. But he should gain ground and be an interesting hitter in that No. 9 slot.

Like the chaps listed before him, Iglesias was chosen for dissection because all should have better seasons in 2014 than they put together in 2013.

The flip side is that some might also drop a gear, with Torii Hunter, who turns 39 in July, a reasonable pick to recede.

But itís what happens on balance that matters. The Tigers, who presumably were such mashers a year ago, were shut out 12 times. They grounded into the fourth-most double plays (146) of any team in the big leagues.

They also scored the second-most runs in baseball (796, behind Bostonís 853) and had the highest team batting average (.283) in either league, thanks in part to a man named Miguel Cabrera.

The question: Can they compensate for what Fielder provided ó when he was hitting in a manner that obliterated his bad defense and limited mobility?

ďYou take Fielderís bat and 100 RB Is out of the lineup, and itís nothing to scoff at,Ē Ausmus said after Saturdayís workout at the Tigersí Lakeland complex.

He also said ďI havenít had any anxietyĒ about Detroitís potential to score enough runs to win enough games to grab another Central Division title in 2014.

That probably classifies as a glass-half-full way of sizing up his offense in Ausmusí maiden managerial voyage.

Itís also a reasonable assessment. For all the fear about a lineup no longer featuring Fielder, look at the 2014 Tigers teamís legs and better gloves, and the probability of better years for half of his batting order, and Ausmusí surprises should fall on the plus side.



Austin Jackson is coming off a subpar season where he hit .272 in the leadoff spot before being dropped to the middle of the batting order during the postseason. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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