Earlier this offseason, we talked about the Tigers outfielders, where we think they’re headed based on 2013, and our expectations for 2014. Which left us with the boring conclusion that things are pretty much the same. Jackson, Hunter, some Dirks, and a platoon partner with one-ish tool. That Tigers outfield, lather, rinse, repeat.
Today’s focus is on what we’ll be watching for early in 2014 as an indication that the outfielders will meet, exceed, or fall short of our expectations.
Hunter is a known quantity, but his game has changed over the last couple of years to focus more on base hits the other way and a higher BABIP instead of some of the power he featured early in his career. He’s also aging, which has left his defense a little worse for the wear.
In 2014, we’ll be looking for two things from Hunter. First, can he keep this new approach going? After two full seasons of an elevated BABIP and new batted ball profile, you start to believe it, but the key to his value is how much that number regresses. In 2012 it was up around .390. Last year it was .344. If it gets too much closer to the .300 to .310 career norm, his offensive value is almost gone. But it could bounce back the other way and he’d be in awesome shape, so look out!
The second note of importance for Hunter is how well he makes routine plays in right field. He looked good in the years immediately after shifting away from center, but he made some really bad reads and attempts in 2013 and that’s the kind of thing you need to avoid, especially as your range diminishes with age. Per FanGraphs’ new Inside Edge data, he was in the bottom half of right fielders at making pretty much every type of play. Seeing if he’s a little better at avoiding mistakes will loom large for his performance this year.
Timing. Always timing with Jackson. Supposedly he’s toying with his swing mechanics again and the key will continue to be his ability to consistently find his groove. He goes on stretches of .400/.500/.600 and stretches of .150/.200/.270 and it correlates pretty well with how he works himself through the zone.
He’s a quality defender, even if he can’t dive, and runs well. The tools are there for him to be a bona fide superstar, but his inability to avoid the big slump pushes him down toward an above average regular. If he can find the magic formula, look for a big year.
It’s hard to pin down Dirks. Good bat, iffy glove, then iffy bat, awesome glove. He’s just kind of okay at everything. The main focus now will be on his health, but what you actually need to watch is his swing, specifically how short it is to the ball. Dirks is at his best when his swing is short and purposeful. He got into trouble last year when he started to overswing and lost his ability to make consistent contact. Don’t try to be Cabrera, you’re not Cabrera.
The key for Davis is to do well what he does well. That seems really obvious and not worth writing, even on the internet, but the point is that you don’t care what Davis does other than the two tasks he’s been assigned. Hit lefties, run fast. If he’s adding value on the bases and mashing lefties, you’re happy no matter what. And because running shouldn’t be heavily affected by randomness, you basically need to watch how Davis handles the batter’s box against southpaws. If he’s employing a good approach and getting decent results, it’s all good. Most of his ability to affect the game is based on how Ausmus uses him, so a lot of it is out of his hands.
I’ve never been sold on Dirks, so I hope his injury is motivation for Dombrowski to find a corner outfielder for this year and post-Torii. We also shouldn’t expect 140 games out of Torii this year. Better production out of LF shouldn’t be that difficult to find. I’d gladly trade a bag of “top” prospects for a solid corner OF for the next 2-3 years. In the Tigers’ case, other than Ray and maybe VerHagen, they all should be available.
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