Despite the wholesale changes in the Detroit Tigers infield from 2013 to this year, the outfield returns relatively intact. The only change of note is that Matt Tuiasasopo is out and speedy Rajai Davis is in.
As I did with the infield (click here) I will break down the five man outfield and outline what we should expect from this group in ’14.
As much as I feel that Alex Avila is crucial to the infield’s success in the coming year, I feel the same about Jackson to the outfield. The soon-to-be 27-year old is an excellent defender (yes, even though he never leaves his feet) but remains wildly inconsistent at the plate. Last spring all the rage surrounded his scaled back front leg kick that he and then hitting coach Lloyd McClendon had worked so hard on.
Early on it looked like a smashing success as he was hitting nearly .400 midway through the season’s first month. But by the end of April his average had fallen 120 points and 10 days later he was on the disabled list, a stint that would cost him a full month of the season and mark the second time in as many years that he missed a large chunk of the season due to injury.
From then on Jackson was his usual streaky self. His struggles in the playoffs, when he struck out in 38% of his at-bats, were well documented and eventually resulted in his demotion in the batting order.
A major flaw in Jackson’s game has been his walk rate. In 2010, his first year in Detroit, he managed to walk in just 7% of his at-bats but improved that to 8.4% in ’11 and 10.9% in ’12. Despite improving upon his strikeout rate in 2013, his walks dipped back down to 8.5%. This likely signals the end of Jackson’s days as a leadoff hitter in Detroit as he will give way to Ian Kinsler and move to somewhere around the 7-hole in the lineup.
The one thing that has always been true is that the Tigers’ offense goes as Jackson does. This will be diminished with his drop in the batting order but he remains an impact player when he’s on. So far during his Tigers tenure Jackson has been an every other year guy in terms of offensive production, and that has usually been fueled by a higher than normal batting average on balls in play (BABIP – was .396 in ’10, .340 in ’11, .371 in ’12, and a career-low .333 in ’13). Good things must be around the corner then. With less pressure on his shoulders as the triggerman, expect a somewhat rejuvenated Jackson to hit in the .280’s with 15 homers and better stolen base production, perhaps up over the 20 mark again.
Hunter’s clubhouse demeanor was as advertised and his offensive production was tremendous for a 38-year old as he hit .304 with 17 homers and 84 RBI’s. His defense however, despite the reputation that preceded him, has fallen off dramatically. Hunter was a mess playing balls at the wall or running back on plays all season long. Without question, he has lost a step and is currently a below average defender whether you choose to believe it or not.
His value is in adding some punch at the plate and keeping the guys around him loose and playing free. And these two qualities make him worth every penny.
Hunter’s 2-year deal comes to a close after 2014 and this only intensifies his hunger for a World Series title. Expect another banner season from Hunter even as he surpasses his 39th birthday in July. He should hit around .290 with 15 homers and 80 RBI’s. Business as usual.
Andy Dirks/Rajai Davis
This has the makings of a sneaky good platoon. Dirks was banged up most of last season and could never truly get on track at the plate. He turns 28 this week and will be asked to play most days versus right-handed pitching, which is when he slugs for the most power. He’ll hit in the lower half of the order again and provide better than expected defense. Everyone wants him to hit .322 again like he did in ’12 but all the Tigers need is a consistent bat, somewhere in the upper .200’s, with extra-base power. I expect Dirks to give them exactly that.
His platoon-mate will be the newcomer Davis whose main asset is his blazing speed. Consider that the Tigers as a team stole just 35 bases a season ago and that Davis stole 45 in just 51 tries all by himself for the Blue Jays.
With Davis though, fans must properly align their expectations. He is a miserable hitter against righties (.228 avg., .273 on-base% in ’13) but does great work against lefties (.319/.383). There aren’t a ton of lefties in the AL Central to match Davis up against but he will be a tremendous asset off of Brad Ausmus’ bench late in games and a nice option against lefties.
Kelly will be entering his age-34 season and will continue to provide the Tigers with defensive versatility as he can sub at all three outfield positions as well as give newly minted third baseman Nick Castellanos a day off in a pinch.
When given enough at-bats Kelly has shown some decent power (six homers in ’13) and the ability to be clutch at times. For a deep bench player it’s hard to complain about Donny Baseball.
To read my infield preview, click here.
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