Should there be a DH on my all-time Detroit Tigers team? Not really, for a couple reasons.
First, I’m old school, and I dislike the designated hitter. (Colleague Dan Holmes did select his top five DH’s a few years back.)
Second, the Tigers have never had anything approaching a long-term full-time DH. The pickings are slim.
The man who played the most games as a DH in Detroit was Rusty Staub. He played 420 of his 549 games as a Tiger as a DH and the rest in right field, where he played a DH-type of defense. On the squad from 1976 through 1979, a period when the Tigers had some pretty awful teams, Staub hit a credible .277/.353/.434. He was a pretty popular guy with some pop in his bat.
Next on the franchise’s games-played list as a DH are Delmon Young (299 games), followed by Kirk Gibson (297 games), Willie Horton (286 games), and Darrell Evans (253 games). Although he did have his memorable spurt of post-season home runs, it’s fair to say Delmon Young was a bust at his full-time job and an embarrassment when he was put into left field. In contrast, Gibson, Horton, and Evans were great Tiger stars who spent some time at DH later in their careers when there were other options at their outfield and first base positions. In fact, that’s been the more customary use of the designated hitter on Tiger teams — a parking spot for a declining player or a rotating position to get another bat in the lineup. Unlike a lot of franchises, the Tigers have rarely focused on a permanent DH.
The man who is currently the DH for the Tigers is an exception to that and probably the best hitter the franchise has has ever had in the position. Victor Martinez is what is known as a professional hitter, and this year he’ll be expected to provide protection for Miguel Cabrera in the as-yet-to-be-determined revamped Tiger lineup. But VMart, who’s now 35, is signed only through the end of this year.
Martinez has played 251 games as a Tiger DH, so by the end of this season he’s pretty certain to vault to second place on the franchise list of games played as a DH. So if I were to name a DH to my all-time Tiger team, Martinez would earn the nod: at .314/.367/.449 in his Detroit career, he’s a significantly better hitter than Rusty Staub.
But this begs the real question I want to raise here. Yes, VMart is slotted in to be the Tigers’ 2014 DH, but should he be? In his eleven games at first base last year, the former catcher turned in consistently good performances and at least one spectacular, highlights-reel play that ranked among the top twenty in MLB Network’s Top 100 plays of the season.
I made the argument last August, when Miguel Cabrera got hurt, that “the best hitter on the planet” today is too valuable a property to be allowed to play in the field. Granted, playing first base is not a hazardous job, but with Cabrera’s recent history of groin pulls and associated mid-trunk and high-leg problems, why add any type of risk — especially when you have another competent first baseman on your squad, and arguably a defensively more competent one?
At the very least, for this year, anyway, Cabrera and Martinez should share first base and DH relatively equally. If I were manager, Miggy would rarely if ever play defense at all. As a hitter extraordinaire, Cabrera should be the poster boy for DH.
Next year, if VMart is not re-signed, the Tigers can find another first baseman, and Miggy should be placed in the DH spot permanently, where he would instantly become the greatest DH in franchise history if the Tigers shell out the money to give him a long-term contract. The two-time MVP winner would be worth every penny of it.
When you have absolute gold, why risk tarnishing it? Let Miggy hit. Get him off the field and pinch-run for him in the ninth inning of a tie game.
Would you employ Picasso as a house painter? No. So why do the Tigers use Miguel Cabrera as a defensive player at any position?