Tigers’ Mahtook, in CF fight, not worried about numbers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — One way to irk fans worried about the Tigers’ plans for center field is to suggest Mikie Mahtook is an answer.

Not an easy sales job the Tigers have there. Not when Mahtook was batting .156 when he and the Tigers pulled into Disney World for Thursday’s afternoon game against the Braves at Champion Stadium.

“It’s one of those things,” Mahtook said Thursday morning. “I don’t put too much stock in numbers at the point. It’s more how you feel.

“I’ve hit some balls hard at shortstop, a couple of deep ones to center field. All you can do is put a good swing on it and hope something happens.”

Mahtook, 27, isn’t officially a starter, or even a platoon option, as the Tigers hold auditions for a center-field job vacant since Cameron Maybin was dealt to the Angels in December as part of a salary-relief move.

But the Tigers for now appear headed toward shared time in center, with Mahtook and left-handed hitting Tyler Collins the most likely combination for manager Brad Ausmus.

JaCoby Jones, a talented rookie, is still taking hitting classes against big-league pitching, and the Tigers prefer that he ideally have dedicated time at Triple A Toledo ahead of any future Comerica Park call-ups.

Mahtook was grabbed from the Rays in January for a player to be named later. He was a first-round draft pick by the Rays, from Louisiana State, and hit well in 2015 (.295, 970 OPS in 41 games). But he broke his hand last June when hit by a pitch and tumbled to .195 in 65 games

The Tigers tend to agree with Mahtook that he probably has swatted the ball better than his numbers suggest.

“He’s hit the ball hard,” Ausmus said Thursday, referencing a triple Mahtook had Wednesday against the Braves, and a couple of earlier 400-foot pokes to center that ran into a heavy, in-blowing breeze.

“He’s got raw skills. He’s got to work at consistently staying in the strike zone.”

Mahtook doesn’t disagree. But it’s more a matter of his mechanics, he said, as far as his spring-camp focus.

“Just clean up my path,” he said. “Be more consistent with my swing path overall.”

Mahtook has been fine, defensively. At least to the extent the Tigers can tell.

The simple truth, Ausmus confirmed Thursday, is, for whatever peculiar reason, there haven’t been a lot of balls smacked to center field during the first three weeks of the Grapefruit League season.

“I wish I’d had more chances,” Mahtook acknowledged. “Defensively, I’ve felt great. It’s not really an issue for me. It’s one of my bigger assets.”

Whether it’s enough to win a 25-man roster spot, or an Opening Day start against the White Sox’s probable starter, left-hander Jose Quintana, isn’t yet known.

And won’t be for a couple of weeks.

“I’m focusing on the day I’m in right now,” Mahtook said. “I’m not worried about tomorrow. Or about two weeks from now.

“I just try and focus on the big picture.”