Applause for Jim Leyland


Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland said following yesterday’s win over Cleveland that he plans to start catcher Alex Avila at third base tonight in Colorado. With interleague play upon us again, the Tigers must do something to keep both Avila and DH Victor Martinez in the lineup at the same time. Avila, a third baseman in college, has been taking ground balls at the position for a few days now. Leyland understands the potential for backlash, but like every other decision he’s made as manager of this franchise, he doesn’t much care.

"“I know, people are going to be saying, ‘He is taking an All Star catcher and moving him to third base.’ If it works, I’ll be a genius. If it doesn’t, I’ll be a $%^# idiot. But that’s the way it is. I have to make those decisions sometimes.”"

As Pat Caputo of the Oakland Press notes, this experiment has the potential to last beyond the next six games. If Avila can show he can adequately man the hot corner, the Tigers will re-gain the flexibility of their lineup, which was essentially sacrificed with the Martinez signing this winter. A lineup that features Martinez behind the plate, Avila at third, and Magglio Ordonez as the DH would allow Andy Dirks to patrol left field and remove a weak bat (either Don Kelly or Brandon Inge) from the lineup. No one should expect Avila to be as capable defensively at third as any of the three guys who have logged innings there so far, and VMart isn’t as good behind the dish as Avila is, but the outfield defense would improve significantly under this scenario.

And truly, what are the other options?

Miguel Cabrera, who came to the Tigers as a third baseman, wasn’t ever any good with the glove at that spot and his body has grown to the point where he is a first baseman only. There won’t be any Albert Pujols-like shift back across the diamond for him. So that really just leaves the Tigers with the choice of going sans one of their most productive hitters and using Kelly at third, or trying something new and putting a much more potent offensive lineup on the field.

As Leyland said, if it works, he’ll be a genius.

And what’s the downside? Well worst case scenario (aside from injury of course), is that Avila will struggle to get to balls and be unable to make up for shortstop Jhonny Peralta‘s relative lack of range. Inge can cover up for Peralta and Kelly has shown better-than-average range as well. But with Avila, though he is athletic for a catcher, you won’t see him cutting off too many balls in the hole, I wouldn’t guess.

But if there was ever a time to try something different, it’s now. The lack of a DH is forcing Leyland to get creative and I like that he’s willing to try this. The easy route would be to allow his club to go into the next six games essentially a man short in the lineup. I don’t expect Avila will play third everyday, but I could see him starting, say, four games at the hot corner over the next six. If all goes well, potentially a few more later in the year, with or without the DH.

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