In past years, making out a Tigers batting order was a little like arranging a gun-rack. Rifles and shotguns (the Tigers’ heavy hitters) could be niftily placed, according to caliber and gauge, in an order both pleasing and meaningful.
Heading into 2018 the arsenal is significantly less destructive. Big-game weapons J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton are gone. So, too, is a carbine named Ian Kinsler.
The Tigers will be wielding not so much BB-guns as lighter loads. And the sobering reality is, by mid-season, trades could further diminish the Tigers’ firepower.
Ron Gardenhire is a manager, not a gunsmith, and will try mightily in 2018 to make his cache of Tigers everyday players as dangerous as their bats allow. But all you need do is consider a possible/probable Tigers order to understand that this year’s roster makeover process could be as taxing, offensively, as it figures to be for a pitching staff that in 2017 was the big leagues’ worst and was most at fault as Detroit tied the Giants for baseball’s most dismal record (64-98).
Guessing at a lineup, on Opening Day and after some all-but inevitable trades are made at mid-season, suggests this could be how 2018 plays out for a batting order, early and late, in a manager’s first season with the Tigers:
1. Mikie Mahtook, left field: Kinsler was an easy, happy choice for leadoff batter when Brad Ausmus was skippering the Tigers. But with Kinsler now working for the Angels, the Tigers need a new lead dog, and Mahtook makes the most sense. He batted .276 in 2017, with a solid .330 on-base average. He can run. He can hit the occasional homer. He’s a reasonable pick to bat first.
2. Jeimer Candelario, third base: Candelario is a switch-hitter, with some crunch, which makes him an alluring choice to hit second. Because the Tigers are a heavily right-handed bunch, Candelario has the advantage of batting left-handed against right-handed starters when he would be slotted between Mahtook, Miguel Cabrera and, very possibly, Nick Castellanos. Candelario can take a walk. Against right-handers, should Mahtook find his way to first, this would also open a lane to the infield’s right side as the first baseman holds Mahtook. If you’re looking for one newcomer who might — might — surprise and excite the Comerica Park customers in 2018, it stands to be Candelario.
3. Miguel Cabrera, designated hitter: A belief here is that Cabrera in 2018 will make a return appearance as the artist previously known as Miguel Cabrera. He did not require surgery to heal his bad back. He will have attacked his off-season rehabilitation with the relish he reserves for belt-high fastballs. And three months before he turns 35, Cabrera stands to be very much the hitter he long has been. That makes him the Tigers’ everyday No. 3 masher, whether he plays first base or takes an occasional turn at designated hitter.
4. Nicholas Castellanos, right field: Castellanos took turns batting third last season when Cabrera was missing and did just fine. He also slugged 26 home runs in 2018 and had an .811 OPS. He turns 26 in March and, if he hits as projected in 2018, Castellanos will become a very tradeable piece in July when he is 16 months from free agency. How the Tigers would fill right field should Castellanos be dealt is anyone’s guess, although Rule 5 hostage Victor Reyes is a reasonable pick. Or, perhaps, prospect Mike Gerber. But for now, Castellanos needs to bat no lower than fourth.
5. Victor Martinez, DH: No one can say with certainty what’s ahead for Martinez in 2018. The likelihood, a week after he turned 39, is that the Tigers will take him north in March as their customary DH and leave him there for as long in 2018 as it can be justified. They owe him $18 million and would prefer to not metabolize the money. They also, face it, are in for tough sledding this season and aren’t likely to pin primary responsibility on a DH who cannot run and who last season batted .255 with a .697 OPS.
6. James McCann, catcher: McCann might become a better No. 5 choice than Martinez. In fact, it would be something of a surprise if McCann doesn’t out-hit Martinez in 2018. But knowing that Martinez is not yet kaput, at least officially, and that he offers a left-handed bat against right-handers in a lineup flush with right-handed sticks, it’s fair to think of McCann as an early No. 6 hitter. How long he stays with the Tigers is worth discussing. McCann could find himself in July headed for a contender that needs catching, given the injury ratio at a rugged position. In that event, John Hicks and, possibly, prospect Grayson Greiner, move into the Tigers’ catching slots.
7. Dixon Machado, second base: This is a purely statistical move, based upon the belief Machado will out-do Jose Iglesias on day-to-day numbers tied to on-base average and OPS. Machado batted only .259 in his 73 games with the Tigers in 2017, with a .302 on-base percentage. But note that Iglesias was at .255 and .288 in the same categories. Machado turns 25 in February and is getting stronger. He has at least a measure of extra-base capacity in his bat and should be a stronger pick than Iglesias to bat No. 7.
8. Leonys Martin, center field: It seems likely Martin will be the Tigers’ new man in center in 2018. And it seems possible that irate fans will, in time, anoint Martin as their latest piñata in the tradition of past crowd polarizers Ryan Raburn, Brandon Inge, Mike Aviles, etc. Martin isn’t much of a hitter (.247 batting average, .661 OPS in 647 big-league games). But he has better career offensive numbers than Iglesias, and he also happens to bat left-handed, which at least breaks up the righties stream the back-end order otherwise would feature. Martin is a fine defender and the pick to play center field on Opening Day. JaCoby Jones needs additional nurturing at Triple-A Toledo and is expected to be stationed there at least initially.
9. Jose Iglesias, shortstop: If in your book seniority carries weight, then feel free, as Gardenhire might be motivated to bat Iglesias seventh and Machado ninth. It might not matter much past July anyway. The Tigers have been trying for nearly two years to barter Iglesias and definitely would be of a mind to flip him for prospect help at any point in 2018, which almost certainly will be his last stint in Detroit, given his autumn free agency. If such a deal comes down, figure on Machado returning to shortstop, with Dawel Lugo arriving as the Tigers’ new second-sacker.
Other changes and substitutions will, of course, be part of the Tigers’ oncoming 2018 saga. Gerber might or might not sidle into the Tigers’ outfield before September. Left-handed hitting Christin Stewart could turn hot and force the Tigers to take an early peek at his work in left field.
But with some of the former Big Berthas that once dotted Detroit’s batting order now employed elsewhere, Gardenhire will be trying to maximize a guerrilla infantry’s war potential. It won’t be easy in 2018. But he knew that when he signed on for a turn in Detroit.
Possible Opening Day Tigers lineup:
1. Mikie Mahtook, CF
2. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
4. Nick Castellanos, RF
5. Victor Martinez, DH
6. James McCann, C
7. Dixon Machado, 2B
8. Leonys Martin, CF
9. Jose Iglesias, SS