We try not to bring up the 2008 season very much anymore, but do you remember how often Jim Leyland would try something - anything - to get the team going last year? If there was any excitement to that lost season, especially toward the end, it was checking in before the game to see what position swap or lineup change Leyland was attempting. About the only thing he didn't try last year was putting Carlos Guillen at catcher.
(Of course, we've also seen some of that this year, in regards to the lineup. Clete Thomas batting third? Curtis Granderson batting cleanup? Don Kelly batting cleanup?)
Over the past few weeks, this approach has been applied to Magglio Ordonez, as Leyland and the Tigers keep trying new ways to invigorate his limp bat. He's hit third in the batting order. He's batted fifth. He's alternated between right field and designated hitter. He was finally moved down to the seventh spot. He was "indefinitely"
benched given a break for four games in mid-June. Then he was put back into the lineup.
All of this was being done without addressing the proverbial pink elephant in the room, that being the $18 million contract option that Ordonez would earn for next year if he started 135 games or reached 540 plate appearances. That was going to be a massive overpayment even if Maggs was close to achieving his numbers over the past three seasons. But for a guy who's had only 14 extra-base hits all year? (That "Singlio" nickname only hurts because it's true.)
Other than showing rare flashes (such as his 2-for-3, three-run homer performance last Saturday at Minnesota) of the hitter he once was, however, nothing has worked. Ordonez still isn't driving the ball with any sort of regularity, continuing to slap the ball to right field, rather than hit it into the gap or pull it. Unless a pitcher makes a big mistake, such as Ted Lilly throwing a weak change-up, he looks overmatched at the plate, trying to compensate for lost bat speed.
Which brings us to yesterday's announcement that Ordonez will now platoon in right field with Clete Thomas, freshly called up from Triple-A Toledo. (Boy, we really buried the lede there, didn't we?) And with that, the Tigers may have reached their final solution in this "What to do about Magglio?" dilemma.
Against left-handed pitching, Ordonez has a .299/.357/.498 batting line with three homers and 13 RBIs in 84 plate appearances. Thomas is batting .230/.316/.425 with four homers and 14 RBIs in 98 PAs versus right-handers. Maybe that doesn't look demonstrably better, but consider that Maggs's OPS against righties is .611. Thomas will also provide far greater defensive range in right field, which is arguably an even better reason to put him in the lineup.
But perhaps most importantly, the right-handed side of a position platoon is always going to draw the short straw in terms of appearances, and that's where this really solves the Magglio problem for the Tigers. As The Detroit Tigers Weblog points out, if you consider how often Detroit is likely to face left-handed starting pitchers for the rest of the season, and how many plate appearances Ordonez would probably see in a game, he'll come up short of the number that would trigger that $18 million option.
This also helps the Tigers avoid potentially upsetting the clubhouse (and its sizable Venezuela contingent) by allowing Ordonez to maintain some dignity and a continued opportunity to turn his season around. With Maggs still getting some playing time, no one can accuse the team of benching him to avoid those vesting contract options. (Even if his sub-par play would justify such a benching in the first place.) They don't have to face the difficult decision of releasing him, something that would surely be unpopular with both players and fans.
And more than anything else, the Tigers can say they tried. They patiently waited for Maggs to find his batting stroke. They stuck by him while his wife was suffering through her health issues. They put him in prime spots in the batting order. They rested him. There is nothing more the Tigers can do here.
It's on Magglio Ordonez to play better. (Of course, it always has been. But the benefit of doubt has also been considered. And it's also up to Thomas to hold up his part of the platoon.) If he does, great. It's what the Tigers have needed all along. If not, then the two sides part ways after the season with no hard feelings. And that's probably what's going to happen anyway. But this way, at least, both parties come out looking better in the end.