Henning: Ausmus has tempting choices in Tigers order

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — A first true taste of the Tigers, ready or not, comes Friday when the Orioles bus to Lakeland for the Grapefruit League opener at the not-so-concisely named Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium (sponsorship dollars beat word economy any day).

And with that that we’ll get a peek at manager Brad Ausmus’ first serious lineup card for 2017.

There’s not a lot of mystery. Most slots are filled. But there is a ruckus over the No. 2 hole, as well as the tail end of Ausmus’ batting order.

The choices here:

1. Ian Kinsler, 2B

2. Nick Castellanos, 3B

3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B

4. Victor Martinez, DH

5. J.D. Martinez, RF

6. Justin Upton, LF

7. James McCann, C

8. Mikie Mahtook, CF

9. Jose Iglesias, SS

This would change, of course, depending upon what happens in center field.

The Collins variable

It’s reasonable to think Tyler Collins, who is something of an X-factor in 2017’s proceedings, will get starts in center against right-handers. Collins could be used anywhere, perhaps seventh to get a left-handed bat into the mix earlier. Or eighth, or even second when he has power that can be a nice dimension there, and when a left-handed hitter has a shot at raking a ground ball through the hole as the first baseman holds leadoff man Kinsler tight.

Nick Castellanos is candidate to hit second for Tigers

The problem in batting Collins early is that he hit .235 last season with a .305 on-base percentage. Those aren’t numbers you prefer anywhere on a dance card, let alone in the No. 2 hole.

Nor, it would seem, would there be any reason to drop Castellanos from a second spot that should be a fit, especially when he’s told Ausmus he’d be happy to bat between Kinsler and Cabrera.

Castellanos hit .285 last season. He had a sturdy .331 on-base mark. He swatted 18 homers in 110 games. He gets steadily better (.827 OPS in 2016) and could prove in 2017 to be one of the Tigers’ three best hitters.

He is Ausmus’ easy choice to bat second. Regularly.

Sorting out those deeper spots is less clear.

J.D. Martinez enjoys the five-slot and doesn’t like batting second. Make it easy on everyone, particularly given his power, and leave him in the niche behind Victor Martinez.

Long shots from middle

Justin Upton can bat fifth or sixth. Depends where you want those 30 home runs he’s likely to club in 2017. But it makes sense to bat him a step behind J.D. Martinez, which he seemed to enjoy once he got rid of his 2017 gremlins and began in late August parking pitches galore deep into big-league stadium seats.

James McCann is a solid No. 7 man. He’ll be a much better hitter in 2017. He is steaming into his third full season and should realize some dividends there. And he won’t be dealing with a bad ankle, which hurt him, and his swing, for too much of 2016.

The thought here is McCann will rise, relative to past numbers, more than any regular in Ausmus’ order.

You can interchange the No. 8 and 9 spots, but for now, view it as a Mahtook-Iglesias arrangement.

Mahtook in center field is by no means a sure thing. JaCoby Jones could have a hot spring camp and beat him out. Collins might play more than anticipated.

But, based on today’s expectations, Mahtook could be the Opening Day starter. And if so, he makes sense at No. 8 for the simple reason he has more power than Iglesias.

Tigers' Nick Castellanos takes batting practice.

Tigers, JaCoby Jones hope AFL stint pays dividends

Iglesias is a guy who gets on base, when he does, mostly by way of singles. He doesn’t walk a lot (.306 on-base percentage in 2016) and he batted only .255 in 2016. You don’t want him in the No. 2 hole, and there’s really no need to bat him earlier than last.

Sorting out the sequence on days when Ausmus rests players isn’t likely to change a manager’s plans significantly.

Alex Avila will get an occasional start at catcher. He bats left-handed, of course, and is very good at taking walks. But there won’t be much inclination to hit him any earlier than seventh.

The same goes for Andrew Romine when he spells Iglesias or Castellanos or whomever.

The lineup isn’t heavy on Ausmus’ anxiety list in 2017. Pitching matters. Defense matters. How hitters are slotted isn’t the influence some imagine.

But in a game that makes everyone a manager, stitching together a batting order is irresistible.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning