Detroit Tigers 2014 Primer: Infielders
In order to prepare everyone for the regular season, I’ll go through the Tigers defensive alignment on the infield for 2014 and provide a key concern for each infielder headed into the season. My primer for the Tigers defensive alignment in the outfield will come out later today.
C – Alex Avila
Biggest concern: After being overworked by former Tigers skipper Jim Leyland in 2011, he’s failed to appear in more than 116 games the past two seasons. In 2014, he needs to be able to catch 120-125 games while hitting closer to .250 over the course of the full season. He failed to bat .230 last year after starting off extremely slow at the plate, specifically from April – June during which he hit below the “Mendoza Line.”
1B – Miguel Cabrera
Biggest concern: The two-time reigning AL MVP and 2012 Triple Crown winner needs to not be hampered by injuries in the final month of the season. It derailed his production and caused him to lose out on a second straight straight Triple Crown. More importantly, it took away from his production in October and caused him to be average at the plate, especially during the American League Divisional Series against the Oakland A’s when he only hit .250, failed to get on-base consistently and recorded an OPS of below .700.
As a result of Cabby’s woes as well as the woes of his teammates at the plate, Tigers ace Justin Verlander had to bail out the team for a second straight season in game five of the ALDS. With a healthy Cabby, hopefully the Tigers won’t have to go down the same road for a third straight campaign.
2B – Ian Kinsler
Biggest concern: Showing that he didn’t simply benefit from hitting at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington as a member of the Texas Rangers for the last eight years. The new Detroit leadoff man’s stats away from the Rangers home stadium are pretty revealing for a 31-year-old second baseman who is now three years removed from his 30 home run-30 stolen base 2011 campaign.
In 2014, Kinsler hit .292 at home while recording an average of nearly 30 points lower away from home (.263). He also got on-base at a clip of only .317 compared with his OBP of .371 in Texas. Now, he needs to prove that he can hit and specifically get on-base at a rate of .340-.350 at his new home ballpark of Comerica Park in Detroit, Mich. The big question is whether he can get on-base consistently enough to warrant maintaining his spot atop the Tigers lineup.
3B – Nick Castellanos
Biggest concern: Being a rookie expected to replace the offensive numbers produced by now-Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder. Also, he’ll be expected to sufficiently defend the hot corner, which he hasn’t done over the course of a full season since 2011 with the West Michigan Whitecaps – the single-A affiliate of the Tigers.
However, as many have speculated over the offseason, he should be a defensive upgrade over Cabrera at third as a result of the fact that he’s more fleet of foot than Cabby. Cabby, who was worth an almost negative 15 runs on defense during the course of 2013, recorded an ultimate zone rating of nearly negative 17 while his UZR per 150 games was nearly negative 20 (according to FanGraphs). This paints a clear picture of how miserable the defense of Miggy was at the hot corner last year.
I think it goes without saying that I’m on board with those that expect Castellanos to man the hot corner in a more efficient manner than Miggy did last season. If the number 37 prospect in all of baseball – as ranked by Baseball Prospectus – hits anything close to what he did this spring (.333 batting average with two home runs and 16 RBIs in 20 games and 66 total plate appearances), he also should be fine with the bat plus be in consideration for AL Rookie of the Year in 2014.
Bold prediction: He’ll supplant Austin Jackson as the fifth batter in the Tigers order behind Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez by the All-Star break. He’ll prove himself to be a more reliable run producer in the middle of the order than A-Jax, and he’ll end up hitting 12-15 HRs and driving in 70-75 RBIs in his first season in the bigs.
In the process, he’ll be a large reason why the Tigers lineup is good enough to fend off the Kansas City Royals and good enough to win a fourth-straight Central division title in 2014.
Biggest concern: Simply, can the combination of the two hit sufficiently enough to make it worth the while of rookie skipper Brad Ausmus to have them split the starting duties at shortstop? Gonzalez hit a .177 in Milwaukee last season, and as a result, was designated for assignment before the season was over with.
Also, Romine – with his former employer in the LA Angels of Anaheim – hit .259 last season during his longest stint in the big leagues thus far. If the utility infielder can cover the hole at short and make all the routine plays while maintaining a .260 average, I think he’ll garner most of the starts alongside Castellanos on the left side of the infield.
I have my doubts on both guys making it the full season as members of the Tigers big league club. Although Gonzalez might start off relatively hot at the plate due to his spring success, I see him tailing off eventually as the grind of the season catches up to him.
Remember, he’s already 37, and his best seasons of getting it done consistently with the glove at short are long behind him. This is evident to many pundits around the league due to the fact that he only started in two games at SS for the Brew Crew last season, and hasn’t played in a full season at the position since 2011 with the Atlanta Braves.
So unless Tigers general manager and president Dave Dombrowski knows something that isn’t known to the public about the torn ACL he suffered in 2012 – which potentially hampered his production last year in both the field and at the plate – I don’t view Gonzalez as an everyday big leaguer or even as a truly reliable backup at this point in his career.
Follow OPSN contributor Vito Chirco on Twitter @VitoJerome for more of his opinions on all the latest MLB happenings.