June 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Tigers Mailbag: Torii Hunter might be moving toward reserve role with Tigers

An on-base percentage of .290 is the lowest of Torii Hunter's long MLB career. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit – Well, Tigers fans sure are in a lot better mood this week.

That's what a four-game winning streak – and, more importantly, a firm place back atop the American League Central standings – will do.

Still, there's plenty on the fans' minds.

So let's dive right in to this week's Tigers Mailbag.

Question: In the eyes of most fans, Torii Hunter has been Wally Pipp-ed by J.D. Martinez. How do you foresee his role the remainder of the season? – labcbaker (twitter.com/labcbaker)

Answer: Nice reference.

Pipp, of course, was the Yankees long-time baseman who got a day off in June 1925 – and never played for the Yankees again. The guy who replaced him was Lou Gehrig.

So, it's a bit extreme to compare the case of Pipp-Gehrig with Hunter-Martinez, but I get your point. And it's a legitimate one.

When Hunter is ready to return every day from hamstring cramps, there's no way he can return to the starting lineup on a daily basis. Martinez is on absolute fire, having won American League player of the week honors, and helping revive a Tigers offense that snoozed through much of June.

There's no way Martinez keeps up this pace, of course. You couldn't keep that pace up in "RBI Baseball." But fact is, Martinez always had big-time power – but he retooled his swing this offseason, has taken advantage of the teachings Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez can provide, and so there's no reason to think he can't be a big contributor for the foreseeable future.

This isn't Quintin Berry or Matt Tuiasasopo here, folks. J.D. Martinez has been in the majors a long time. The opposing pitchers all have had the scouting reports. But he's still hitting.

There's the reason the Tigers have had J.D. Martinez in their sights for a long time. He's got big-time baseball skills, and they've been on full display the last 12 games, as he's hit .404 with 13 RBIs.

Best guess on Hunter, and it'll be quite a tough pill to swallow for the one-time perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner: He's heading toward a platoon role. He doesn't get on base, he doesn't field his position well, but he still hits for some power. So there's still, obviously, a place for him in Detroit as he winds down his two-year, $26 million contract. The suggestions from some fans that he be dumped are rather silly, honestly.

Rajai Davis is another guy who probably shouldn't play every day. The Tigers knew this when they signed him, and the results have been predictable. When he's fresh, he hits. When he's not, he doesn't. So a Davis-Hunter platoon might be best for the time being.

When Andy Dirks returns, perhaps in a week or two, then all bets are off. The Tigers believe Dirks can be the Dirks of 2012, and not the Dirks of 2013, which would make him the starting left fielder, with Austin Jackson in center and J.D. Martinez in right.

And that would put Davis and Hunter – earning a combined $19 million – both on the bench. Given the Tigers’ weak reserve pool in recent years, that scenario might not be all that bad.

That, by the way, also would likely spell the end for Don Kelly in Detroit.

Question: Who would hit in the No. 2 slot? Offense is efficient when people can get on for Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Austin Jackson is failing in that role. – Clint Novak (twitter.com/cmupensfan)

Answer: We've talked about this before, and my answer hasn't changed. Even if it is wildly unpopular with most Tigers fans who barely look an inch beyond batting average.

I would hit Alex Avila second all day, every day. Seriously.

The No. 2 spot in the batting order is wildly important. Whoever hits there needs to get on base, and get on base with some regularity. Doing so makes the hitters behind them – Cabrera and Martinez, in the Tigers case – much more effective in producing runs. As it stands, Cabrera and Martinez still have combined to drive in 110 runs, which is just amazing.

It's just amazing because the Tigers have a .295 on-base percentage from the players who have batted second in the lineup. That's sixth-worst in Major League Baseball. Hunter, who has spent the bulk of the season batting second, has an OBP of .290, which remains an absolute puzzler.

Avila is an lightning rod for fans who can't stomach his .218 batting average, but that's a shortsighted view of things.

The Tigers catcher still gets on base to the tune of a .340 clip, which trails only Cabrera and Martinez on the Tigers. Leadoff man Ian Kinsler is fourth, at .326. Then it's a falloff to Davis, at .318, and Jackson at .315. So, as you can see, the options are slim.

True, Avila isn't as fast as you'd like your No. 2 hitter to be, and he strikes out more than anyone would prefer. But he finds his way to first base more than all but two Tigers. That matters, and so would this: Avila is as selective a hitter as there is in the Tigers lineup, but can pounce on fastballs – even good fastballs – and he'd see more than his share hitting right in front of Cabrera.

That's a win-win. Still, I doubt Brad Ausmus would pull the trigger. It's an unconventional move to be sure, and Dirks will be back soon – and he's more the prototypical No. 2 guy.

But, hey, you asked, I answered, and you probably called me an idiot. Been there before.

Question: How long until the Tigers call up Daniel Schlereth? – Joe (twitter.com/JoeBrunet24)

Answer: If you're placing wagers, take the over.

Schlereth, acquired by the Tigers on Tuesday from the Pirates, was not brought in with any thought he could help cure a Detroit bullpen that still has too many moving parts.

In the terms of an MLB source, the lefty reliever simply is "organizational depth." Bottom line: The Tigers just called up a pair of pitchers, so they had holes to fill at Toledo. Schlereth fills one of those.

Truth is, Schlereth, 28, hasn't been all that effective since 2011, when he was pitching in the Tigers bullpen. And even that season crashed and burned when he notoriously gave up two grand slams in one game. The next year he had shoulder soreness, and he hasn't been back in the major leagues since, despite work in the Orioles and Pirates systems.

That didn't stop the Tigers from bringing him back. The Tigers like to keep doors open for good guys, like they did with Nate Robertson earlier this year.

That doesn't mean Schlereth has any chance of pitching in Detroit this year, outside of a miracle turnaround – or a September callup. Robertson didn't either, so he eventually was given his release.

What fans need to realize is this: Not everybody in the minor leagues has to be a prospect, waiting for his shot in The Show. The Tigers, with two rookie-league teams, two Single A teams, and a Double A and Triple A team, have six minor-league teams. And all those need full rosters of healthy players. That's hundreds of openings.

The annual draft helps, but certainly can't do it all.

Question: Why is there no grass on the Comerica Park infield from the pitching mound to home plate. Is there any other major-league infield like this? When did the Tiger organization start this and why? – Bob Guerin, via e-mail.

Answer: I like these types of questions. Thanks for the inquiry, Bob.

Bob is talking about the strip of dirt that connects Comerica Park's mound and batter's box. And actually, it's not all that new, in terms of baseball history. In fact, it pays some tribute to what many ballparks used to do back in the early and mid-1900s, the Polo Grounds and other ballparks included. In that respect, the strip gives Comerica Park a nice touch of old-school class. I appreciate that.

It's been there from Day 1 at Comerica, and is mostly about aesthetics. But back in the day, the path had a distinct purpose. The walkway between the mound and home plate is among the most-walked-on parts of a baseball field. Think about it. Pitchers use it. Catchers use it. Umpires use it. So, using a dirt path made it easier for small grounds crews to maintain.

Comerica Park is a rare new stadium with a dirt path, but has company: Chase Field in Arizona.

Question: Have we seen the last of the dominant Justin Verlander? – Corey Wolfgang (twitter.com/coreywolfgang)

Answer: That's a bit far-fetched, if you ask me – oh look, you did.

Verlander doesn't look like vintage Verlander right now. There's no secret about it. The secret is fixing what's wrong – the velocity, the location, the mechanics, a lingering injury, and on and on and on. He already has made one step in the right direction, with his last start, against the Indians. He looked much more in control, and strikeouts were up, a big sign the tide might be turning.

Baseball fans are an interesting bunch. They tend to overreact at the slightest bump – either positive or negative – in a player's stats, when the truth is, it's a long season, and things usually level off.

It wouldn't surprise me one lick if Verlander, by year's end, has an ERA in the low to mid 3.00s, and a strikeout rate closer to one per inning – rather than the 77 he has this year, in 104.2 innings.

Remember, there was a time not long ago when folks thought Verlander was done being an ace. That was just last summer – before he went out and dominated in September, and again in the playoffs.

Tune in to Detroit Sports 105.1 from noon-1 p.m. Saturday for a special edition of "Hardcore Baseball," as Tony Paul hosts a tribute to the 1984 Tigers, featuring special guests, giveaways and more.