Henning: Big-bat Tigers proving Leyland prophetic
This happened during an impromptu conversation last month with Jim Leyland, during batting practice, on the baseball field at Marchant Stadium.
He had been studying the new and healthy people on Detroit's 2015 roster. And while being careful and quiet, because expectations can make life tough on a team and on a manager, he had seen soul-stirring signs that this 2015 Tigers lineup could be murder on opposing pitchers.
He liked what he saw at different points in that lineup. A potentially good 1-2 punch with newbie centerfielder Anthony Gose (or with old hand Rajai Davis) and Ian Kinsler. A healthy and dangerous middle order in Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez, aided by that new guy in left field, Yoenis Cespedes.
And an ex-Tigers skipper who had gotten 55 home runs from his No. 8 and No. 9 hitters (Craig Monroe and Brandon Inge) in his first year with the Tigers, 2006, thought this team had a chance at packing some wallop from Nick Castellanos, Alex Avila (or rookie James McCann), and a jumping-jack shortstop who had batted .274 in 144 big-league games, Jose Iglesias.
The season was six games old heading into Monday's afternoon matchup against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Tigers are unbeaten and have been destroying opposing pitchers, even one, Corey Kluber, who last year won a Cy Young Award.
The Tigers lead 30 big-league teams in runs (47), batting average (.355) and OPS (.983). They have four of the top seven hitters in all of baseball (in order): Iglesias, Cabrera, Gose and Kinsler.
Teams have discovered, at least early, there are no breaks. Just as Leyland believed – in concert with the Tigers' front office – there was the potential for a powerful, steady offense if Cabrera and Victor Martinez had sufficiently healed and if even a less blessed hitter such as Iglesias could play on two healthy legs.
Now, of course, comes the counter-argument, which everyone who works for the Tigers will also acknowledged as inevitable.
This won't continue. Not at this level. And not throughout a batting order. There will be cold snaps. The Tigers were looking at a possible correction in Monday's game, with high-powered starter Gerrit Cole going for the Pirates.
Hitting big-league pitching is so universally difficult and overwhelming it is a matter of time until Tigers bats cool and opposing pitchers even the field.
The difference is this Tigers lineup, with health, could be positioned from 1 through 9 to withstand good pitching better than any Detroit batting order in memory.
Credit the Tigers' front office and scouts for making adjustments here and identifying potential.
Gose batted .225 last season for his team, the Jays. The Tigers knew this. They also believed a player, then 24, with exceptional athleticism and a quick bat, might develop into a better hitter. The Tigers needed a new center fielder and in trading for Gose preferred him over other options.
Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' general manager, said from the day Gose became Tigers property that his scouts and batting instructor Wally Joyner believed Gose had a serious shot at becoming a much tougher hitter.
Through spring camp and in the early days of 2015's regular calendar, Gose has driven the ball for extra bases and a big batting average. In four games, he has a homer, triple, two doubles, and is hitting .450. Again, these numbers will fall, perhaps dramatically, but everything on display in his at-bats from March and into April suggests the Tigers got a significantly better player and hitter than some imagined.
At the opposite end of manager Brad Ausmus' lineup is a shortstop who didn't play a single game in 2014: Iglesias. He is batting .526, second only to Dodgers demolitions expert, Adrian Gonzalez, who is bashing pitches to the tune of .609.
Iglesias, also, will return to earth's atmosphere soon enough. The difference is that he isn't likely to hit at the sub-standard level some of Detroit's ardent fans and cynics believed was inevitable.
The doubters tend to forget two things about Iglesias: He had a .274 batting average in 144 big-league games coming into the season. And that batting average had been forged when Iglesias was 22 and 23 years old. When you hit at a decent clip early in your career – and 144 games is a fair sample – it isn't often numbers go anywhere but north as a player matures, even after missing a season.
Where else did observers perhaps not see what Leyland and others saw as possibilities?
They probably underestimated what Castellanos would do in his sophomore season. He hasn't been hitting through these initial games (.174), which is one more reason why more normal patterns on both ends of the hitting spectrum will occur in coming days.
Castellanos for one reason was Detroit's first-round draft pick in 2010: He is a hitter. A talented hitter. His numbers weren't blowaway in his rookie year (.259) but the potential was clear to anyone who saw how a player, then 22, swung the bat and cracked line drives at an exceptionally heavy rate.
He likely will catch fire at about the same time cooler climes will return to other zones in Ausmus' order.
As for the middle, it was only a matter of health. Miguel Cabrera is finally playing with a lower body that isn't sabotaging the rest of his colossal hitting package, and his numbers, predictably, are stratospheric, as the Indians too well know.
Victor Martinez has been going slowly but he, too, will pick up steam as others throttle back. J.D. Martinez, one of those trophies the Tigers' front office (Al Avila, particularly) and scouts can take turns enjoying, is perhaps the most lethal, and cheapest, big-hitting acquisition since the Red Sox stole David Ortiz.
Elsewhere: Avila was an All-Star starting catcher in 2011 and has been hitting more in line with his deep past. McCann is a rookie with talent and should help craft for the Tigers the best 1-2 catching tandem in baseball.
This is why men who have spent all their lives in baseball saw the possibilities – strong possibilities – that Detroit's lineup might be a happy surprise for fans and a bell-ring for the rest of baseball.
These guys can hit. They'll have their off-days and weeks. That's baseball. But as was whispered last month by a sage manager, who knows the game as thoroughly as anyone alive, this lineup will be no party to pitch against in 2015. For anyone.