As the first full-squad workout takes place for the Detroit Tigers today, the club begins Spring Training with only a few questions about the roster. One of the more glaring is how manager Jim Leyland will use the vacant designated hitter role.
There are many who assume Miguel Cabrera will be so poor defensively at third base that Leyland will have no choice but to abandon the experiment and use Cabrera and Prince Fielder in a first base/DH platoon.
My guess here, however, is that Leyland will give Cabrera an awful lot of rope and while the big guy might struggle at the beginning, he’ll improve enough to be serviceable at the position. If the Tigers have any intention of putting Victor Martinez into the lineup in 2013, they must have Cabrera playing defense. They’ll use the 2012 season to get him ready for 2013.
So if we remove Cabrera from the candidates, understanding that there will be “rest” days where regular guys will see a day at DH to keep their bat in the lineup, that really leaves only two realistic options for the bulk of the at bats: Delmon Young and Ryan Raburn.
Raburn is downright terrible at second base, but is a very good left fielder, if you ignore the occasional fly-ball-turned-home-run. Young is as bad in left as Raburn is at second. The choice should be obvious; if both are healthy and if some combination of Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, and Danny Worth can handle second base, Young should be the guy penciled in at DH.
One of the biggest questions entering the 2011 campaign was how well Martinez would adjust to being a full-time DH. His career numbers at the position were significantly behind the numbers had had produced as a catcher. All VMart did was go out and hit .330 and drive in 103 runs while playing very little on defense.
With sample sizes as small as we are talking about here, it’s as silly to put any stock in Young’s 84 PA’s as a DH as it was to judge VMart by his 180 PA’s coming into last season. That said, while Martinez had struggled as a DH, Young has produced an .839 OPS in said role.
No one expects Young to come close to Martinez’s level of production, but it may not be unreasonable to expect Young to produce a good amount of runs this year.
Whether in left or as the DH, Young figures to hit fifth; right behind Cabrera and Fielder. There will be plenty of runners on base in front of him. Young produced 32 RBI in a quarter season with the Tigers after coming over via trade and he’s just one year (and an oblique injury) removed from knocking in 112 as a Minnesota Twin in 2010.
Young has many critics and their arguments are not without merit. His glove and baserunning offer no value to the club, so his worth is entirely based on his offense. He also posted a putrid .298 OBP after coming to the Tigers last year, but as bad as that was, it was still higher than the OBP of both of Young’s cheif competitors for playing time, Raburn (.297) and Andy Dirks (.296). Oh and before you tell me how young Dirks is and how he’ll improve, Dirks just turned 26. He’s almost exactly four months younger than Delmon. Young is also the owner of almost 3000 major league plate appearances in which he’s gotten on base at a .321 clip. No, that’s not lighting the world on fire, but it does show a track record of performance and Young is still years away from any kind of physical regression.
By all accounts, Young had his worst season as a big leaguer in 2011. He dealt with a nagging injury for the entire first-half, was basically given away within the division for a pair of minor league relievers. His OBP, SLG, and OPS were all full-season career lows. But a healthy Young showed down the stretch and into the post season what he can do well, and that’s drive the ball into the gaps and over the wall.
Young isn’t a guy who will ever draw a lot of walks, but he also doesn’t strikeout all that much, either. He has enough power, and is likely still developing as a hitter, to produce 20-25 home runs and drive in 85-100 runs per season. If he does that with a .320 OBP and a .450 SLG, he’ll be a useful hitter for the Tigers. If they’re smart enough to keep him out of the defensive alignment as often as possible, the Tigers will be a better club.