Ausmus has no plans to hit Tigers’ Upton in No. 2 spot

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — If it’s not broken, the old adage suggests, don’t fix it.

Brad Ausmus agrees. He will not tinker with Justin Upton. Nor with a Tigers batting order that hummed late last summer when Upton was slotted deeper in the lineup.

“That’s not gonna happen,” Ausmus said Wednesday as rain fell in Lakeland and pushed the Tigers’ workouts indoors.

Until Wednesday, batting Upton earlier was at least a thought as Ausmus weighed what starter would slip into a No. 2 hole that remains open and even befuddling. The Tigers — for that matter, all big-league teams — ideally want a high on-base hitter batting second.

A player who draws walks and has crunch in his bat can be a nifty choice at No. 2. Upton’s career is heavy on both skills. He owns 221 career homers and a 10-year, big-league on-base average of .347.

But the numbers ignore 2016. And, for sure, Upton and the Tigers would love to ignore last season’s first four months.

Upton had nightmare of a spring and early summer. He batted .235 in the season’s first half, with nine homers and 112 strikeouts in 85 games, summarized by a disastrous (for Upton) OPS of .670.

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In late August, Ausmus suggested a three-day break and brain cleanse might be the team’s and Upton’s best, and maybe last, chance to salvage an outfielder’s first season with the Tigers.

It was quite the hunch.

Beginning on Aug. 21, Upton put together a batting blitzkrieg. He clubbed 18 homers in the Tigers’ final 37 games. He finished with a career-high 31 homers.

His numbers, based on lineup slot, made Ausmus’ Wednesday call easy.

In the 18 games in which Upton batted second in 2016, he had a .211 average, with 32 strikeouts, three walks, and a single homer. His OPS: .540.

Batting fifth, Upton was at .294 in 27 games, with six homers and an .898 OPS.

Batting sixth (97 games), Upton hit .294 and slammed 23 homers.

Not even an hour before Ausmus’ veto, Upton had been diplomatic about the No. 2 slot. And about his candidacy.

“I can hit anywhere,” he said, stoically, at his locker in the Tigers clubhouse. “I really haven’t put much though in it. I think there are a lot of guys who can hit there.

“Brad can make that decision down the road. It doesn’t have to be now. And it doesn’t have to be anything in concrete.”

Upton could also acknowledge something his manager understood. That sixth spot — or even fifth — suits him just fine.

“Yeah,” he said, cautious about saying words that could have been construed as a campaign, “I did get comfortable there those last six weeks.”

What, in fact, Ausmus does about the ever-intriguing second spot is anyone’s guess.

“You’re preaching to the choir,” the Tigers manager said last week when it was mentioned that no Tigers player seemed to be a great fit.

J.D. Martinez is one possibility, even though Martinez views the second slot with all the affection Upton holds for it.

Tyler Collins, on days he plays, could be an option, in particular because of his left-hand bat, which can be helpful in stroking singles past a first baseman holding leadoff batter Ian Kinsler tight to the bag.

Nick Castellanos is another possibility, Ausmus concedes. And in fact Castellanos could easily be the choice because of his 2016 numbers: .285 batting average, .331 on-base percentage, .827 OPS, and 18 homers in 110 games.

Ausmus isn’t terribly worried about an issue that’s more of a fan’s fixation.

“Unless you really do something crazy with a lineup, it doesn’t have that much impact,” he said. “It doesn’t make that much difference over 162 games.

“Unless I hit Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) ninth, the impact isn’t that great.”

It’s one more issue for a team to settle during spring camp’s games, which begin Thursday when the Tigers play Florida Southern at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

The Grapefruit League season arrives for Ausmus’ gang on Friday when the Tigers host the Orioles.