Henning: Tigers' No. 2 hitter will be crucial piece of puzzle

By Lynn Henning, The Detroit News
The Tigers' Rajai Davis hit .282 and stole 36 bases last season.

A certain scribe has recommendations for manager Brad Ausmus — suspect they will be instantly rejected, but hey, it's January — as the Tigers slip into Motown this week for their Tigers Winter Caravan tour, as well as for Saturday's TigerFest ceremonies at Comerica Park.

Begin with Detroit's 2015 lineup.

It seems logical Ausmus will go on most days with a batting order of this flavor:

1. Ian Kinsler, second base

2. Rajai Davis/Yoenis Cespedes outfield

3. Miguel Cabrera, first base

4. Victor Martinez, designated hitter

5. J.D. Martinez, right field

6. Nick Castellanos, third base

7. Alex Avila, catcher

8. Jose Iglesias, shortstop

9. Anthony Gose, center field.

The main question centers on that No. 2 spot. Will it automatically belong to Davis/Cespedes, or, because of Cespedes' power, will he drop deeper into the order and perhaps clear space for, say, Castellanos, or even Iglesias, whom it is believed here will hit better than most would forecast for 2015?

If the skipper chooses to go with Iglesias in that second slot, he moves a speedy runner, and a potentially good all-fields contact hitter, into more of an ignition role. That could be helpful, particularly when Cespedes isn't a great on-base guy and might end up in a deeper niche — sixth or seventh, perhaps — anyway.

Another thought is tied to Kinsler as Ausmus' presumed leadoff batter. He needs to hit more in line with the 2014 Kinsler's first half (.806 OPS vs. .627 after the All-Star break) if he is to rank automatically as Ausmus' first man.

Should Kinsler regress as he did a year ago, either Davis, or even Iglesias, becomes an option there, given that no one realistically expects Detroit's new centerfielder, Gose, to be anything but a definitive No. 9 choice.

If he makes the team — and he has a great chance to become Detroit's fifth outfielder — Tyler Collins might be a consideration in that second spot because of his left-handed bat and significant power.

James McCann could work as Alex Avila's platoon partner at catcher and ranks as a bottom-order hitter because of legs (and, at least initially, a bat), which don't match well with the two-hole.

Those are one guy's thoughts on how a batting order as difficult to project as any other aspect of Detroit's roster in 2015 might shake out when games that count are played.

A separate advisory — rejected by Ausmus with equal relish, I'm sure — has to do with his bullpen roles in 2015.

Roles are necessary. But roles can be overdone, as even Ausmus agrees. And last year, in one man's estimation, a devotion to guys working set innings or situations was followed overly rigorously.

It's a point of view perhaps shared by Al Alburquerque, who no doubt still wonders how a team with an oil-well fire for a playoff bullpen never once saw him pitch in the division series against Baltimore.

Tigers reportedly inquire about James Shields.

First reaction to news leaked by Jon Morosi of Brilliant.

It has nothing to do with coaxing top-dog free agent Max Scherzer into nervously accepting Detroit's perceived standing offer — $144 million last March implies something similar is still on the table.

James Shields went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA last season.

No, this is about Shields, specifically. It's about the Tigers pondering a superb pitcher who could be as effective as Scherzer in helping Detroit win five straight division titles.

And it's about a more sensible contract. At least in terms of length.

Shields is 33. Scherzer is 30. The Tigers need to be most concerned about back-end commitments that already approach a half-billion dollars heading into the next decade.

This is where you could build an easier argument for Shields and Detroit doing business. He might not get the six- or seven-year deal Scherzer wants and likely wins, and that could be a difference-maker.

Shields will be royally paid when he finally signs, for something well north of $100 million. But if the Tigers could get five years of Shields versus the paydays owed Scherzer for an additional year or more, they might be better off biting on Shields.

Do the Tigers want to upgrade their rotation for 2015?

Are you kidding?

Why did they make the David Price trade in 2014? The deal for Anibal Sanchez in 2012? For Doug Fister in 2011?

They wanted a rotation that could win a World Series. The existing bunch is serviceable and might well be strong enough to push Detroit into the playoffs. But it's not, in any analysis, a rotation that would match the Nationals, or Dodgers, or maybe the Angels' five-man crew when it regains all its healthy troops in 2015.

But that price tag on Scherzer is destined to be stratospheric. More worrisome, it stands to be overly lengthy. It's why a case could be made for the Tigers tabbing Shields and dealing with a slight luxury tax ($189 million ceiling in 2015) ahead of shedding tens of millions of dollars in salaries ahead of 2016 (Price, Joe Nathan, Alex Avila, Rajai Davis, Joakim Soria, etc.).

It's easy to see a scenario where the Tigers, who tend always to be open-minded about pumping up their rotation, use newcomer Alfredo Simon as a long reliever and replacement starter and keep his rotation options open.

Shields, though, if Detroit were to snare him, could give the Tigers just enough breathing room. It's conceivable he would come to town as a thoroughbred starter not destined to create that extra year or two of buyer's remorse the Tigers could so easily risk in a big Scherzer package.

Is it doable? Perhaps. Is it likely? Maybe not. But likelihoods and the Tigers haven't always been mentioned in similar sentences these past 10 years.