The Tigers entered the offseason with a few well-understood needs in the lineup: better table-setting and a better L-R balance. Take a look at the table below to see how the Tigers lineup, by lineup spot, fared in 2011 relative to baseball as a whole. Plus/minus comparison OPS numbers for 1-8 represent all 30 big-league clubs, numbers for the 9-hole are for AL teams only.
Spots generally occupied by Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila were big pluses relative to the rest of the league. Though discussion in the early offseason revolved around finding a high-OBP guy to bat second after Jackson, the only real areas of weakness in 2011 were Jackson at leadoff and Ordonez and friends at #3. Of course, making this kind of a distinction between the #2 spot (good) and the #3 spot (bad) based on personnel is disingenuous: the Tigers had no regular #2 or #3 hitter in 2011. 9 men saw at least 49 plate appearances in that spot, and while Brennan Boesch (the presumed #2 for 2012) saw the most time, he still filled that spot less than a quarter of the time. The number 3 spot in the lineup – which simply belonged to Ordonez at the start of 2011 – wound up fairly evenly split between Ordonez, Boesch and Delmon Young. The Tigers #3 batters were even marginally better than their #2 batters as a group as measured by OPS. But… teams tend to use their best all-around hitter at #3 (with no clear rule on who to bat second) so the Tigers wound up looking relatively bad compared to the rest of the league at that particular lineup spot.
Now, take a look at the Tigers regular lineup for 2012 using the Bill James stat projections – where their ‘plus/minus’ is compared to the league overall in that slot in 2011. Don’t put too much credence in whether or not an individual player is above average for the league or below here – however – since those averages include backups for all teams and not just the regular starters.
Bill James gives a pretty favorable projection for Austin Jackson (whereas many other projections would predict much more ‘regression to the mean’ in BABIP for the guy) with overall numbers slightly better than his career averages, to reflect development of a young player. IF we actually get a .335 OBP from Jackson, that more or less solves the grave weakness at leadoff for Detroit (though a .335 OBP still isn’t ideal for a leadoff hitter, it is a little better than average). The problems at the #3 spot created by Ordonez’ injury and poor play have been solved in the offseason not by player acquisition but by (finally) deciding to move Miguel Cabrera up in the order. Cabrera’s exceptional numbers at cleanup should be adequately replaced by Prince Fielder, though there should be a slight dropoff at that slot.
While Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila may not be able to match their numbers from 2011, they project to hit significantly better than a typical #6 and #7 hitter. Andy Dirks is no lock to make the team, to see many plate appearances or to hit if he does. BUT… according to those Bill James projections (which foresee a rise in his walks and BABIP and a drop in strikeouts) Dirks would still be a nice improvement on the ‘average’ #8 hitter. Ryan Raburn, though he is far from a perfect baseball player, would be among the best #9 hitters in the game and certainly a huge improvement over what Inge and friends provided in 2011.
The question marks in the lineup (aside from how well Jackson will fare at the whole ‘getting on base’ thing) fall to the #2 and #5 slots. Brennan Boesch did very well in 2011 hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera as #3, and he’ll get the opportunity to do a lot of the same in 2012 one spot up in the order. While he’ll likely be better than the average #2 batter overall (due to plus power) it remains to be seen whether he will be able to match or improve upon last year’s on-base-percentage in a slot in the order that puts OBP at a premium. A bigger question is whether Delmon Young will be able to adequately replace Victor Martinez at the #5 spot, or even to be an adequate #5 hitter at all. There are a couple of factors in his favor: first, Delmon Young is a contact hitter with at least a bit of power. He won’t get on base a ton, but when he does it will probably be due to hits. You don’t want walks with guys on first and third, and he’ll be seeing a lot of those type of situations hitting after Cabrera and Fielder. On the other hand, he doesn’t have the pure power (or has shown only flashes of it) that you want to see in a number 5 – and might be prone to hitting into a lot of rally-killing double plays instead of Ks and big flies. Also: with back of the lineup guys as good as the Tigers have – on-base percentage from a #5 is far from irrelevant. Young isn’t a terrible bet to match Victor Martinez-and-backup’s power numbers, but I’ll eat my MLB licensed Tigers headgear if he can get on base at the same clip.
As for getting more lefties into the lineup, this is somewhat of a wash. At the start of the season in 2011, the Tigers were looking at Raburn in left, Ordonez in right and Inge at 3rd with Avila, Rhymes and switch-hitting Martinez as the only definites from the left side. Boesch quickly earned the playing time that Ordonez and Raburn were begging to avoid and the Leyland showed an uncharacteristic openness to using lefty/switch-hitters Santiago, Kelly, Dirks and Betemit in platoons. By the end of the season, the team’s long-term L-R split was much less of an issue and this is where it remains. Lefty Fielder replaces Martinez, Avila and Boesch remain. Assuming that Dirks and Kelly split a lineup spot, they will effectively replace Will Rhymes and the Tigers will be able to field a defense first lineup with 6 left-handed bats if they should so desire (Kelly at 3rd, Dirks in LF, Santiago at 2B or SS and Cabrera at DH).
If we look ahead to what we imagine the 2013 lineup will look like, at this point it appears that the Tigers might (for the first time in recent memory) actually have a lefty leaning lineup – with Martinez returning and Delmon Young and Ryan Raburn replaced as lineup regulars by Andy Dirks and Ramon Santiago, leaving only Cabrera, Peralta and Jackson from the right side.