The Prince Fielder deal leaves the Detroit Tigers in a bit of a strange situation looking forward to 2013 – maybe a situation that would feel normal in other organizations, but not here. They really don’t know who – from a number of options – is going to start at third base next year. The assumption is that Castellanos is going to get first crack at it, but nobody really knows if they’ll feel that he is able to handle it defensively. Since he doesn’t need to play third to find him a place to play (he can just take Andy Dirks‘ job if he’s hitting well) they won’t feel that they have to play him there. Miguel Cabrera is the de facto backup plan if Castellanos looks terrible at third in March. There are questions – as of November – about how Miggy will recover from surgery and many fans would prefer to see better D at third, so Cabrera isn’t an ideal choice. Nonetheless, he definitely has the tools to play there – particularly with Iglesias covering his back – he likes playing third and has used the difficulty of the position for extra motivation as far as conditioning goes.
July 11, 2012; Reading, PA USA; Erie SeaWolves infielderJordan Lennerton
(37) watches his flyball during AA Eastern League All-Star game at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Eastern Division defeated the Western Division, 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
If Castellanos can’t play third (or Cabrera insists, which sounds plausible to me) the Tigers will need a first baseman rather than a third baseman and one who could ideally play the position more adeptly than Victor Martinez. That was a long-winded intro – but the point of all this is that the guy you should be looking for in such a scenario (or if Cabrera, Castellanos or Martinez were to hit the DL) is Jordan Lennerton. Lennerton is a 27-year-old non-prospect, but he’s a non-prospect primarily because of the position that he plays. The bar is really high as far as offensive ability to make the big leagues as a first baseman. Other people have written about this more intelligently than I ever could, but the basic idea is that big league first baseman tend to be guys with tremendous bats that started at some other position and ultimately couldn’t hack it defensively because of the assumption that anybody can basically learn to be a decent first baseman pretty quickly. That’s added to the fact that your natural competition in the minors was big, slow guys. Lennerton has 5 straight seasons with an OPS between .800 and .850 at various levels of the minors – which would have been easily good enough to get a call up if he played any other position.
Enough with the disrespect. Lennerton partly never got that callup because he was blocked by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. He has been added to the 40 to protect him in the Rule 5 Draft suggesting that he does currently factor into the Tigers 2014 plans even if he didn’t before. There is a non-trivial chance that he could wind up on the big league club coming out of spring training and he’s a lock to get called up if one of a handful of guys gets hurt midseason.
As far as what to expect: Lennerton is not Adam Dunn. If you want to compare him to recognizable names at first he’s more of a James Loney (or if you go a little farther back, and get a little more optimistic with the pure talent comps – Darin Erstad or John Olerud). He has more doubles power than home run power, so he isn’t going to be a the top of the list in slugging (which is what has held him back). In the minors, he has struck out an uncomfortably high percentage of the time (for a guy who won’t hit 30 home runs) – not because that strikeout rate is too high but because you wonder how high it will get in the bigs. Unlike Loney (a “put the ball in play” hitter) he has also walked a lot and put up high BABIP numbers down there in the minors. His 2014 Steamer projection is a pretty lousy .238/.315/.368 slash line but the big “change” relative to his AAA numbers is the expectation of a much lower BABIP than Lennerton has ever had in the minors. He is (as mentioned before) a line drive hitter that drives the ball to all fields, ideally suited to Comerica Park. There’s excellent cause to expect his BABIP to stay elevated and his OPS to come pretty close to Loney’s career .761.
But the big reason that Lennerton isn’t Adam Dunn isn’t that Lennerton hits line drives instead of home runs. The big reason is that Lennerton is apparently the equivalent of Jose Iglesias at first base – winning the MiLB Gold Glove at that position – and ten leagues with a single winner makes for a lot of competition. We don’t have many sources for minor league fielding metrics, but according to claydavenport.com Lennerton was a full 25 runs above average at 1B in 2013 and has been about 10 runs above average in a “typical” year. He doesn’t have the highest ceiling, but projecting 1.5 to 2.0 “wins” from a full season of Lennerton doesn’t seem irrationally optimistic (like an average season from Loney) and when you consider all aspects of his game Prince Fielder was only good for 2.2 last season. While you’d probably like to see better D at third, better D at first is still better D. If things don’t break quite right, it’s possible that this is exactly what we’ll be looking at in 2014 – and while we wouldn’t be exactly thrilled, I think we’d be glad that such a backup plan was in place. He’s apparently raking down in Puerto Rico right now, which is a good sign. Expect to hear more about Lennerton come March.