Wojo: Powerful Tigers lineup eager to show it's fit to hit

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez hits  a two-run home run to tie the score in the sixth inning.

Lakeland, Fla. — So far, the pieces fit. Then again, when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and the only sign of ice is in the frozen lemonade, everything looks like it fits.

There was Miguel Cabrera hitting a ball so hard, birds seemed to jump off the light towers. There was Victor Martinez following with a shot to left, his left-handed swing looking nostalgically smooth. A few innings later, there was Martinez again, slamming a ball over the right field fence for a two-run homer.

The Tigers lost their Grapefruit League opener to the Pirates 4-2 Tuesday, but the only thing that really matters is everyone escaped without injury, short of a nasty sunburn. The spring is supposed to offer hints and clues, and you don’t have to dig deep for this: The Tigers should have one of the best-hitting lineups in baseball.

Just like last year. But please, not like last year.

Somehow, the Tigers led the majors in batting average (.270) but were 15th in runs, which speaks to a lot of things. Poor baserunning, double plays, untimely hitting, and of course, Cabrera’s calf injury and Martinez’s season-long recovery from surgery. For all the names and numbers, ultimately it didn’t work. It helps when the pieces fit — and get fit — and that’s why Martinez is the brightest spot of the spring so far.

“He’s noticeably stronger, and I’m not just talking about hitting,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Moving around, taking ground balls, getting into the batter’s box, he looks stronger. There’s no question a healthy Victor Martinez makes a difference. You’re talking about a guy who was second in the MVP voting the year before. I’m not saying he’s gonna be second again, but even if he’s just average Victor Martinez, it’s a huge difference from last year when we saw hobbled Victor Martinez.”

When Martinez, 37, reported to camp two weeks ago, his health was reflected in his good mood. He said he could barely swing at times last season after surgery on his left knee, and his batting average against left-handed pitchers (.219) added to the worst production of his career. The Tigers finished last, and to climb back atop their division — and not many people are predicting they will — they need better starting pitching and a much, much better bullpen. Frankly, that’s true of pretty much every team in every division.

Setting the table

Just as important, the Tigers need to reestablish their strength, which should be a formidable lineup. That’s why Mike Ilitch authorized the pricey addition of Justin Upton, who said he already feels like this is where he belongs, hitting second in front of Cabrera, getting acclimated to the Tigers’ loose and lively clubhouse.

“Everybody knows last year was injury-plagued for this team, and health is gonna be really key for us,” Upton said. “Everybody walks in here day one knowing what this team is capable of. With the hitters we have, we’re able to hand the baton to the next guy. In my case, I just happen to be handing it to one of the best hitters in the league. My job is to get on base for Miggy and Victor and the guys behind me.”

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There has to be some way to straighten out the crooked numbers because they don’t make a lot of sense. The Tigers didn’t pad their batting average with a bunch of singles. They were second in the majors in on-base percentage and third in OPS (on-base plus slugging).

They clogged the bases and didn’t do a great job of unclogging them. Cabrera, who went on the disabled list for the first time in his career, hit only 18 home runs (but still led the AL with a .338 average). He now says he feels better than ever after his first healthy offseason in three years.

X-factor

If the top six in the lineup — Ian Kinsler, Upton, Cabrera, Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos — stay healthy and hit to their norm, that bizarre run-scoring differential should correct itself. And don’t overlook the impact of Castellanos, who turns 24 in two days and has reshaped his body with an altered workout routine. He only dropped a few pounds, but he lightened and loosened his upper half.

“Just becoming more athletic all the way around,” Castellano said. “I feel like I’m in way better shape than I was last year. I feel very confident, my mentality, my body changes, a little bit of everything.”

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It’s noticeable, and also notable. Ausmus said Castellano looks strong but “not as big and bulky,” and I’d say that’s accurate. After a lengthy struggle last season, Castellanos did rally to finish with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs and a .255 batting average.

He has to show he’s comfortable in his new physique and comfortable at third base. If he is, and Upton takes over nicely in left field, and Victor Martinez is moving freely, and Cabrera is mashing like he almost always does, the numbers should more closely match historic trends.

The sights, sighs and sounds of spring can be misleading, or be misread. It’s a long way from spring to fall, but here at the start, the Tigers’ lineup appears to have the right pieces fit into the right places. Staying fit, as always, is the tricky part.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski