Four puzzle pieces. That’s the outfield for the Detroit Tigers entering the 2015 season. Two guys with power—one with a high ceiling and another who may already have crashed through his ceiling and is apt to fall far. Two speedsters who can burn up the base paths but can’t hit a lick against same-handed pitchers. One guy with a great arm. One with great range. Two who are defensively challenged. Mix and match.
YOENIS CESPEDES. Who is the real YC? In 2012, the Cuban ballplayer finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and tenth in MVP voting, hit .292 and slugged .505, stole sixteen bases and was caught just four times. He hasn’t approached those performance levels since, but he has talent to burn. The hope is that, in a clubhouse with the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, Cespedes will settle down and his mercurial career will reach a steady high level. The Tigers certainly need him—at bat and in the field. Strangely, Cespedes has mostly been playing left field of late, but with his tremendous arm he should play right fielder in Detroit. Could he play center at times too? If so, he could replace Anthony Gose there against left-handed pitchers, and Rajai Davis could stay in a corner where he belongs. But Cespedes’s range in center is questionable. His desire may be questionable too. If he returns to rookie season form, however, he may well thrill fans at Comerica.
J.D. MARTINEZ. What a difference a year makes! Last spring, released by the Houston Astros, his career in doubt, Martinez arrived in Lakeland at the end of March after Detroit signed him to a gambler’s $3 million contract as a free agent. This spring, he comes to Lakeland penciled into the heart of a powerful lineup. To say 2014 was a breakout year for J.D. is a vast understatement. Martinez snuck up on everybody and slugged his way to the top of the AL leader board, staying there for three-plus months before returning back to Earth as the season waned. His final line of .315/.358/.553 was a tad better than Miguel Cabrera’s.
When your OPS jumps more than 200 points from your career average, what explains it? More than a change of atmosphere, surely—and also more than just a wise adjustment in his swing. Throw in some good fortune, perhaps—but he was at the age (turning twenty-seven) when some guys put it all together. The Tigers will be happy if he settles in midway between last year’s surprise production and his pre-2014 career numbers—around an .800 OPS, which would provide a solid bat in the No. 6 hole behind Cespedes. Martinez has poor range in either outfield corner, and if regresses back to his Houston self, he’d be a platoon player again—but the Tigers have no lefty bat to pair him with, barring a surprise breakout from Stephen Moya.
RAJAI DAVIS. Most of what The Raj brings to the Tigers is his ability to steal bases. He can also hit left-handed pitchers well enough to bat leadoff against them. But against right-handers he’s no better than a No. 8 or 9 hitter. His defense is merely adequate in the corners and a disaster in center field. Watching him get bad reads, take poor routes, and make unwise dives in Comerica’s vast center field is painful. If all goes unexpectedly well with Gose, Davis can be saved for the fourth outfielder job he’s best suited for at age thirty-four: pinch-runner and perhaps a minor upgrade as a late-game defensive replacement for JD Martinez in an outfield corner. More likely, though, he’ll have to platoon in center with Gose, so just close your eyes and pray he catches something by accident.
ANTHONY GOSE. The new arrival from Toronto gives the Tigers two or three potential Gold Glover defenders up the middle. Gose is a super speedy, very rangy, sure-handed center fielder in the Austin Jackson mode—ideal for Comerica’s vast outfield expanse. Too bad he can’t hit lefties worth a lick—and he hits right-handed pitchers worth about exactly one lick. He’s still young, but it doesn’t appear from his track record so far that he can become an MLB regular. So that means the Tigers are going to entrust center field to two fourth-outfielder types. It might work out OK—the runs Gose and shortstop Jose Iglesias could save on defense may be crucial to winning games in today’s low run-scoring environment. And, if Miggy and VMart are healthy and Kinsler and Cespedes and JD contribute, the offense should be potent enough to afford to give a lineup spot to a poor-hitting defensive whiz like Gose.