Detroit Tiger Defense Strong Up The Middle

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Traditional baseball wisdom holds that strength up the middle is essential to a solid defense.

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If that’s the case, then at least as far as the center of the diamond is concerned, the Detroit Tigers will be standing on very solid ground in 2015.

It starts behind the plate, where incumbent Alex Avila is expected to share time with rookie James McCann.

Beyond that, the keystone combination of shortstop and second base will be handled by Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler, whereas newcomer Anthony Gose is expected to get most of the playing time in center.

So what exactly can we expect from these players who’ll form the core of the team’s defense?

Let’s take a look.

Catcher

Alex Avila returns behind the dish as the Tigers’ regular catcher for the fifth consecutive year. He’s in the last year of his contract, though, and is coming off a weak offensive showing in 2014. He was also riddled with concussions again last year, and with the emergence of James McCann may no longer be a lock as the everyday catcher.

That being said, Avila’s contribution to the squad is frequently under-appreciated. Behind the plate he excels at the intangibles–understanding the tendencies of opposing hitters, calling the game, framing pitches, blocking low balls, managing pitchers, etc.

In a word, he possesses a subtle skill set that isn’t statistically quantifiable but nonetheless has a profound influence on the outcome of the game.

With that in mind, though, even accomplished defensive catchers are expected to hit to some degree to justify their place in the line-up. With a 2014 slash line of .218/.327/.359, Avila is walking the tightrope between catching every day or becoming a quality reserve. The Tiger brass said as much after the season, and this will be a watershed year for him.

Which is where rookie James McCann comes in.

The Tigers’ first pick in the 2011 draft (76th overall), McCann has always handled the glove well–the question that perpetually hovered over him was whether he would hit.

After a tepid start in the low minors, McCann eventually started to make a little noise with the bat, and last year slashed a respectable .295/.343/.427 at AAA Toledo.

Whereas he’s not known for his power, encouragingly he slugged five home runs in August, which has given the club a dash of optimism that the 6’2″, 210 pounder is beginning to flash some late-arriving power.

Wherever the offensive chips may fall, the prospect of either Avila or McCann saddling up at catcher every day should provide the team with a bulletproof defensive duo for 2015.

The Keystone Combination (Shortstop and Second Base)

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Though it’s been only 15 months, it seems like a long time since Jose Iglesias last trotted out to shortstop for the Tigers.

That probably has a lot to do with the exquisite skill the 25 year-old Cuban brings to the position and the extent to which his presence in the line-up was missed last year.

Simply stated, Iglesias is one of the finest defensive players in the game today.

He combines extreme range, unerring instinct, and stupendous athleticism, and if he remains healthy has a chance to be one of the finest defenders ever to don a Tiger uniform.

When Iglesias finally reclaims his shortstop position and glances across the infield in the direction of second base, he’ll be looking at the 2014 “Wilson MLB Defensive Player of the Year”, Ian Kinsler.  That distinction, based solely upon a battery of defensive metrics, was largely a result of Kinsler’s 20+ “defensive runs saved” last year. That impressive sum not only trumped all MLB second basemen, but all American League infielders as well.

Though defensive acuity is difficult to quantify and metrics occasionally distort, Kinsler’s play in the field also passed the “eye test” with flying colors.

He was rock solid start to finish, impressing with his ability to consistently complete not only the full complement of routine plays, but a stunning array of the spectacular as well.

He was also unusually adept in two arcane areas of infield play–deftly handling the late, short hops that bedevil lesser infielders, and precisely relaying outfielders’ throws to the infield.

All in all, one would be very hard pressed to identify another major league keystone combination that surpasses the one the Tigers will trot out to the middle of the diamond this year.

Center field

The crowning jewel of the Tigers’ new defensive axis is center fielder Anthony Gose.

Gose possesses two primal elements that rarely occur together in nature–elite speed and a power arm. Tellingly, in high school he was both a sprinter on the track team and a pitcher who threw in the mid-90’s on the baseball team.

Come April, the Tigers will hand Gose the keys to Comerica Park’s center field, a pastoral expanse of some magnitude. As such, the park rewards the fleet and the well-armed.

Expect Gose to deliver emphatically on both counts.

The Bottom Line

It’s no secret the Detroit Tigers are facing a litany of challenges in 2015.

Unless they re-sign Max Scherzer, their starting pitching is less formidable than last year, and to date their perennial bullpen woes have been addressed in only a piecemeal fashion.

The health of Miguel Cabrera also looms as a concern, as does the team’s general ability to place runners on base with regularity.

But one obvious team asset which has been largely overlooked is their defensive talent in the middle of the diamond.

With Avila and McCann behind the plate, the catching duties are in good hands, so to speak.

It’s beyond that position, though, that the “up the middle” defense takes flight.

In Iglesias, Kinsler, and Gose, the Tigers have a trio of Gold Glove- caliber defenders that will break the spirit of many an opposing batsman.

And come the end of the regular season and the ensuing battle for postseason glory, the team’s strength up the middle just might place it right in the thick of things.

Next: Miggy ditches boot, TOR Dirks, Schlereth returns

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