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Ryan Raburn's issues present quite the problem

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What should the Tigers do about struggling slugger Ryan Raburn and the second base problem?
What should the Tigers do about struggling slugger Ryan Raburn and the second base problem?

Let's face it: Ryan Raburn is a problem right now. He can't hit. At times he struggles in the field -- at the dozen or so positions he's played this year. And now he's making mental mistakes on the basepaths. To some, this is a clear sign Raburn should be out of the line -- or off the team entirely. Others are willing to give him a longer rope.

Interestingly, Detroit has a winning record with Raburn in the line-up (29-23) and with him as the starting second baseman (14-8). Yes, to emphasize that point, the Tigers are 14-8 with Raburn starting at second, and 25-27 when he doesn't start there. So let's not pretend playing Raburn is substantially decreasing the Tigers' chances of winning or something.

On the other hand, ignoring the problem doesn't seem like the best move either, from a player or team standpoint. Allowing Raburn just to flounder out there without a viable replacement serves only to decrease his confidence, decrease the team's confidence in him, and cost the Tigers in both runs and runs allowed. So the Tigers have an issue at second base -- a seasonlong problem.

After batting .253 with four home runs in April -- not a good start -- Raburn managed to make those numbers seem downright Ruthian by hitting .113 with a double during 66 plate appearances in May. June is hardly better: a .240 average and .283 on-base percentage, though we've seen some improvement in the past week or so.

That is only one aspect of the game he's struggled in. There's been a running debate over in one of the FanPosts about Raburn's defense at second. "He's not the worst ever" seems to be the case for; "he just might be" is the case against. Place me on the side of the debate that says he could definitely play worse. But the fact remains: The Tigers could do better simply by playing Danny Worth more. And unless Raburn keeps up his recent success at the plate, Detroit improve the run potential of the lineup as well.

The issue is more complicated than plugging in B for A. That's because the Tigers outfield appears to be full. Brennan Boesch is settling in as the regular left fielder. Magglio Ordonez will be given ample time to prove whether he should or shouldn't be the right fielder after coming off the disabled list. Raburn cannot count on an outfield platoon, because Boesch has hit left-handed pitching even better than right-handed. So that means Raburn's future -- unless an injury changes things -- is at second base.

This is a player Detroit thought enough of to give a two-year deal this offseason: $1.3 million in 2011 and $2.1 million in 2012. While that sum of money may not seem rich in the grand scheme of the Tigers' payroll, it does show that they thought enough of him and his future with the organization to make the commitment. So essentially giving up on him two and a half months into a two-year deal seems premature and unlikely.

After 61 games last season, he was batting .211 with a .626 OPS. That's only slightly better than the .208 with a .592 OPS that he's sporting now. The key difference is that he walked a bit more last year. In 2009, 61 games was again one of his lower points in the season: a .225 average and 707 OPS. Some might grab hold of a downward trend over the past few seasons. But the more optimistic might note that Raburn appears to be a rather slow starter. In each of the past two seasons, he batted above .300 with an OPS of .892 and higher.

If Raburn continues his past pattern, June 13 might be the date circled in red for the turnaround. Following a few days off, he re-entered the lineup by going 1-for-4. From that day through Tuesday's game, Raburn is batting .273 with a .360 OBP and .500 slugging. He has hits in six of the eight games, including two doubles and a home run.

I think the Tigers have to keep playing Raburn for awhile longer -- maybe all the way up to the All-Star Break, before making too big of a decision. They remain in contention for the division title -- and if you thought they would win the title five days ago you shouldn't change your mind about that now. Raburn at second base isn't costing the team games like some people seem to think he is. Pitchers failing to throw strikes, and fellow batters struggling too cost the team just as much or possibly poor. And finally, there is the pattern of Raburn's turnrarounds during the past few seasons and the last eight games of this one.

The Tigers should just hold steady for now, as uncomfortable as that proposition may seem.