If we are to believe Jim Leyland’s Pre-Spring-Training lineup forecast, we’re looking at Miguel Cabrera as the regular third baseman, Delmon Young as the regular LF, Ryan Raburn as the regular 2B and either Andy Dirks or Don Kelly (I’ll ignore any possibility of Clete Thomas making the team) playing some position or other so one of our defensive misfits can DH. Aside from which of the Kelly/Dirks duo is hitting 8th – everyone else is a lineup regular with a fixed slot. No platoons. I have no problem with that lineup whatsoever – looks potent and balanced.
The bench, on the other hand, is a little unsettling. That would make Ramon Santiago the backup at both second and short (and possibly third), Gerald Laird the backup catcher and either Dirks or Kelly (I’ll go ahead and assume it’s Dirks) the 4th outfielder. Since Kelly, Santiago and Raburn are so versatile that already alleviates any need for positional backups with one remaining spot on the 25 for a position player. So who should that 13th man be, and why?
(Inge, of course, the answer is Inge)
For one thing, I would say that the 13th man ought to hit right-handed and he should be a righty that mashes lefties. Your backup catcher is never going to pinch-hit (even if Laird could hit). Kelly is a lefty. Ramon Santiago is a switch-hitter, but one who hits better from the left side. Both he and Kelly are glove-first players who approach ‘league-average’ production overall through great defense despite approximately replacement level bats. In addition to filling in whenever someone simply needs a day off, those two could be used profitably as late-inning defensive replacements or filling in for the Tigers’ less potent righties in bad matchups. We might see, for example, Santiago at second, Kelly in right and Boesch at DH against a slayer of right-handers like Justin Masterson or Carl Pavano.
That’s all well and good. No problems there. With Fielder at first and more lefties for the outfield, the Tigers should be able to put 6 lefties in the lineup when they so choose. What I don’t like is the inability to sit Dirks/Kelly against lefties (replacing him in the lineup with Kelly in that scenario would definitely not be an upgrade). Dirks hit lefties well in Detroit last year and maybe he simply hits breaking pitches well enough so that this is not an issue, but those small sample results aren’t enough to ease my mind. Without a right-handed outfielder, the best option using the 12 roster locks would be Santiago at second and Raburn shifting to left.
Nonetheless, I’d be more comfortable with one more right-handed outfielder on the squad that could bash lefties and lefties alone while not embarrassing himself or others in the field. I don’t see the need for a right-handed infielder – that doesn’t seem like the optimal way to spell Raburn, Peralta or (particularly) Cabrera especially if that infielder doesn’t hit righties well if at all. Raburn, Peralta and Cabrera all hit well enough to be regulars at their position despite potentially shoddy defense – but their L-R splits are large. Anyone who is going to back them up – who is a worse hitter overall almost by definition – needs to be at their best when those three are at their worst, like Kelly or Santiago.
The Tigers will, no doubt, be looking at a number of righties in camp for that last bench spot. Ryan Strieby might get a look – as might Jerad Head and Ben Guez. Thought his major league experience is very limited, Head has an amusing L-R OPS split of .641/.000. As the title of this post no doubt already informed you, my pick for the spot would be Brandon Inge. Since Inge’s contract makes him untradeable, he is effectively free for Detroit despite his $5.5 million salary. He is likely worth keeping around as an insurance policy in case Cabrera should prove unable to play third due to bulk or nagging injuries. Though Inge has been a terrible hitter overall, he’s much better against lefties – with a career .800 OPS as compared to his career .652 OPS against righties. It has been a while since Inge played in the outfield and he has probably lost a half a step with age, but when he has played OF in the past he was a +20 fielder by UZR/150 – about as good as Don Kelly (which is saying something). I am aware that many of our readers at MCB would love to see Inge gone, but I don’t feel the same. He clearly isn’t good enough – at this point in his career – to be a starter at any position, but as the weak side of a platoon he’s almost ideal.