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Mensching: Why Tigers' lineup might indeed be better

By Kurt Mensching, Special to The Detroit News
Yoenis Cespedes takes a whack during Saturday's game against the Cardinals.

Manager Brad Ausmus has said several times this spring that he thinks the Tigers' lineup is better this year than last.

That's a pretty tall task.

Last season the Tigers had the highest batting average (.277), the highest on-base percentage (.331), the highest slugging average (.426) and the second-most runs scored (757) in the American League.

Even when you adjust each team's offense to its particular ballpark -- it's harder to score runs in San Diego than it is in Denver, right? -- the Tigers still tied for the best offense in the AL when measured by OPS+.

Yet Ausmus thinks Detroit's going to even be better in 2015? Well, he can make a good argument.

There were only three or four regular starters who dramatically outshined the league last season and room for improvement everywhere else.

Using OPS+ (where 100 is an average player and 110 represents a player 10 percent better than league average) as a way to compare players across different teams, those were Victor Martinez (168 OPS+) J.D. Martinez (149), Miguel Cabrera (146) and Torii Hunter (110).

Cabrera actually performed worse than his career norms. Both Martinezes were above theirs.

Early peek

The Tigers were notably worse than average when it came to their everyday third baseman (Nick Castellanos, 93), catcher (Alex Avila, 91) and shortstop (Andrew Romine, 55), while Ian Kinsler's 100 arrived right at league average.

So, although it would be too much to ask for either Victor or J.D. Martinez to repeat such phenomenal years, Ausmus possibly has a lineup better balanced top-to-bottom than he had last year.

Saturday's batting order gave us a likely possibility of what Ausmus might write down: Anthony Gose, Kinsler, Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes, Avila, Castellanos and Jose Iglesias.

Against left handers, you can probably swap Rajai Davis in at the top of the order and James McCann in for Avila, otherwise everything stays the same.

The lineup is so good that Ausmus is considering batting Cespedes sixth -- and you can make a good argument that's the best place for him. And remember, this is a player who spent most of his career hitting third or fourth, and one who has won consecutive home run contests during the past two All-Star breaks.

Just the thought of Ausmus' decision would leave so many opposing team announcers incredulous!

It doesn't take much stretch of the imagination to see a healthy Cabrera pick up right where he left off before injuries started to pile up late in 2013. Kinsler and Cespedes (in place of Torii Hunter) ought to give Detroit incremental improvements, too.

The ground most fertile for improvement, however, is hoed by Gose, Iglesias and Castellanos.

Gose will likely be used in platoon with Davis in center field. Like Austin Jackson before him, Gose will put on a show defensively in center field. Actually, he's a better fielder with a better arm than Jackson, too.

He'll have to earn his keep at the top of the order by getting on base, which is something Jackson failed to do against right-handed pitchers. Last year, for instance, Jackson hit .239 with a .289 OBP in 462 plate appearances against righties in 2014.

Gose is having a terrific spring, hitting .321 with .379 OBP and slugging .509, but his track record against right-handers leaves a bit to be desired as well. Still, it's an improvement over Jackson: Gose owns a career .241 average and .316 OBP against righties.

So that's one possible improvement.

Castellanos marks the next one. In addition to poor fielding at third, he batted .259 with a .306 OBP and .394 slugging, giving the Tigers the worst all-around third baseman in the league.

He reported to camp bigger, and he appears to be hitting better. He has a track record of improving at the plate as he grows more comfortable, and he's tagged as a possible breakout player in the Tigers' order.

One popular projection system, ZiPS, sees him hitting .280 with nice improvements to both his on-base percentage and power. Those figures would shore up a problem for the Tigers and buy him time to prove himself in the field. That seems likely.

Jose Iglesias

Iglesias factor

Finally, there is Iglesias. A young Cuban player rushed through the minors by Boston, Iglesias never put up great hitting figures in his professional career. He either put it all together with the Red Sox in the first half of 2013 or fluked his way to a .330 batting average. In any case, he came back to earth in Detroit, as he hit .259 with a .306 OBP and near non-existent power in Detroit after being traded to the Tigers.

He missed all of 2014 with shin fractures, leaving what to expect this season to be an even greater guessing game. His spring training batting average has been just above .100 as well, causing even the most optimistic to wince a bit while saying, "It's only spring training."

The projections don't favor him greatly -- ZiPS lists him hitting .253 with .298 OBP and still no discernable power. However, even that batting line beats the string of shortstops who were put on the field for Detroit in 2014.

Are the improvements by those three players -- and the hope that the catching tandem will put up better numbers as well -- enough to lift Detroit's lineup this season above last year's?

It's hard to say. But this much is easy to say: the Tigers have a great lineup yet again, so Ausmus has reason to be optimistic as he writes out his batting orders in 2015.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.