March 8, 2014 at 6:06 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers need smarts to balance speed; six-spot seems to suit Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson has been less active with his feet, which has translated to better hitting. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. Ė Notes, thoughts, items, 22 days before the Tigers (assuming winter has finished its mayhem) open the 2014 season at Comerica Park:

There was a Tigers double-steal in Friday nightís game against the Yankees. There was another double-steal Saturday. The Tigers are averaging about 1.5 steals per game during the Grapefruit Leagueís early days, which compares with one thieved base they averaged every 4.5 games in 2013, when they were 30th among 30 big-league teams in heists (35 steals total).

Two factors are at work here:

The Tigers have many times the speed they had a year ago. Prince Fielder, Matt Tuiasosopo, Jhonny Peralta, Brayan Pena, and even Omar Infante Ė all are gone. Rajai Davis, Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Steve Lombardozzi, and Nick Castellanos are faster than the men they replaced.

An increase in fleet feet is slightly more of a factor than the next influence that has been at work in the early days of spring camp.

Brad Ausmus, the new Tigers manager, will run more. Definitely, he will run his players more, even taking into consideration the difference in raw speed on Detroitís 2014 squad.

This, of course, can be a good thing. On the flip side, if runners get carried away with their Olympic sprint competition and forget theyíre playing baseball, innings and potential runs can dissolve. Thatís the unhappy consequence if somebody decides to do a cool Rickey Henderson impression when his legs donít support such fantasy.

This primarily is an issue for Ausmus to sort out. It is among the many aspects of managing a big-league baseball team he is weighing in his Tigers initiation.

It is why he has been pushing his players during these opening weeks in Florida to run, run, run. He has been green-lighting them regularly, telling them to swipe or stretch an extra base if itís there for the taking, all in a quest to learn his teamís limits and the percentages he can trust.

The potential for a faster, more mobile, more attacking team to harass opposing pitchers and defenses is immense. Smart, aggressive running can win about as many games as any variable this side of pitching, defense, and middle-of-the-order hitting.

But it must be measured. And thatís where Ausmus and his influence on Tigers players will be worth studying as 2014 unfurls.

If something close to a perfect note isnít struck, running yourself out of a game becomes a nasty, politically dangerous label even if, on balance, you might be winning more than youíre losing thanks to all that aggression.

Have fun watching this particular storyline evolve. The emphasis on pilfering bases and calculated risks is as stark as any difference that could have been introduced to a new team by a new manager.

Jackson settles in

Rarely does a batting-order adjustment appear to have meshed as well with a hitterís remodeled mechanics as it has with Austin Jackson hitting at No. 6.

He got rid of the leg-kick and is now less active with his feet. It in turn allows him to swing more quickly and more squarely to a pitch. And a center fielder who for too long has been waging this on-again, off-again war with his stride is now swinging with a firm base and is crushing pitches.

This makes Jackson a more relaxed as well as more potent hitter. He canít think about power, of course, or it will mess up everything gained from his new approach. But because he is stinging the ball in a manner tailored to abusing a big ballpark, Jackson should find that six-hole in which Ausmus has been using him a great place to camp, particularly at Comerica Park.

You never know if what has been on display in Florida will be a permanent, or even season-long, habit for Jackson. He has been in and out during his time in Detroit. But if he has settled into the All-Star-grade hitter he always had a chance to be at age 27, it would not be news. It would simply signify that he has reached a comfortable point with his swing and with his place in Detroitís lineup.

Coke nearing end?

The Tigers made a sensible move when they decided to bring back Phil Coke for 2014 and pay him $1.9 million. He is only 31. And if you noticed how he threw against the Red Sox during last autumnís playoffs it was clear he still had an arm capable of throwing a mid-90-mph fastball and a slider that could bedevil at least left-handed batters.

The Tigers took a chance, even if his 2013 season was otherwise forgettable. They had little to lose, either way, when they could decide by March 15 if they wanted to keep a left-handed reliever their bullpen seriously needs, or release him for one-sixth of the money owed.

Coke pitched Saturday and was not much better than he had been in a game against the Braves a week ago. He threw one fastball that hit 91. But he had to crank up to throw that particular pitch, which missed the strike zone.

Anything can happen. He will throw again this week. But bringing back Coke was going to be more of a low-stakes gamble for the Tigers than it represented any kind of safe investment in a roster spot.

Coke, on balance, has had a good run in Detroit. It might be days from ending.

More Lynn Henning