Ever since Austin Jackson was sent to the Mariners as part of the trade that brought David Price to Detroit, there have been some questions surrounding center field. Rajai Davis did an admirable job filling in to finish the season, but many feel that Davis is not a long-term answer. Both his hitting and defense were acceptable, but only as an emergency stopgap, not an everyday player.
Davis has a career slash line of .270/.317/.381, but is at his best when facing left-handed pitching where his line improves to .304/.358/.446. Despite Davis’ blistering speed, he is not a great defender. In nine years in the major leagues he’s played all three outfield positions sporadically, and netted an overall UZR of -20.9 and a DRS of -4. His defensive metrics look much better when he plays center field than left field, and most Tigers fans would admit that their eye test agreed. Still, Davis has only managed to be exactly average in center field according to both UZR and DRS over his career, but has been significantly below average over the last five years.
Due to Davis’ limitations on both sides of the ball, many feel that Dave Dombrowski should look elsewhere for a center fielder in 2015 and beyond. Unfortunately, there are no attractive options within the organization. Ezequiel Carrera and Don Kelly both saw time in center field in 2014, but few believe that either has the talent to play full-time. Andy Dirks should be returning in 2015, but doesn't appear to be a candidate for the position. Among the Tigers’ center field prospects, the only one who is nearly MLB-ready is Daniel Fields, who missed a portion of 2014 with a hand injury and is currently making up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League. With fewer than 300 plate appearances in Triple-A under his belt, it wouldn't be wise to rely on him in a starting role.
So that brings us to what lies outside of the organization.
The free agent market is thin, to put it gently. Colby Rasmus is the only legitimate center fielder available, who Rob profiled here. Rasmus is surely an option, but is far from ideal for team with World Series aspirations and an eye toward the future. The Nationals hold a $9M option on Denard Span, and if they were to decline he would become available to the highest bidder. Unfortunately they’d be crazy to do so, as Span has been worth over 3 fWAR in three consecutive seasons. Chris Young is also available, but would likely be below average both with the bat and the glove.
One creative solution could be to sign Nori Aoki, a right-fielder by trade, and create a rotation of platoons throughout the outfield. Aoki is very solid in right field and there is some reason to believe he could be sufficient in center. Aoki’s career .353 OBP and left-handed bat would surely be welcome in Detroit, the true question is whether or not he can contribute in center field.
Outside of the limited options in free agency, the Tigers could always acquire a center fielder through trade. A general rule of thumb with Dave Dombrowski is to expect the unexpected--attempting to predict one of his trades is probably foolish, but let’s do it anyway.
Jon Jay, like Aoki, is an on-base machine from the left side of the plate. Unlike Aoki, he’s also an established center fielder, and has a track record of being solidly average out there. He's not a middle-of-the-order type bat or a game-changing defender, but he's solid in all aspects of the game. His teammate, Peter Bourjos, is not much of a batsman--Steamer projects him to post an 88 wRC+ in 2015 -- but is an absolute wizard in the outfield. He’s the same guy who forced Mike Trout to left field in Anaheim, and he’s posted an astonishing 40 DRS and 49 UZR in the equivalent of about two and a half full seasons in center. Whether either guy is available at all is up for debate; the recent tragic passing of Oscar Taveres will have an effect on the Cardinals’ outfield plans, but what that means for Jay and Bourjos remains to be seen.
The Red Sox appear to have a bit of a logjam in center field. Former top-prospects Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts will be competing for time with recently defected Cuban star Rusney Castillo. The most likely target for the Tigers is probably Bradley Jr., who's stock has fallen after hitting at sub-Mendoza-Line levels through his first 500+ plate appearances. Bradley is an excellent defender and showed solid hitting skills in the minors, so if the Tigers believe that he'll turn things around at the plate they could try to get him at a discount.
Another name being tossed around is that of Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin, who follows the same general pattern we've been seeing thus far; a lefty bat that won't kill you, with a great glove. Martin has been the primary center fielder in Arlington for two years now, and has posted a .264/.316/.375 line in his career.
The Giants might be World Series champions within a few hours of this writing, and they've also got a couple of options the Tigers could pursue. Gregor Blanco has been their primary center fielder ever since Angel Pagan had back surgery in September. Blanco and Pagan are both solid all-around players that could fill the need for a left-handed bat (Pagan is a switch-hitter). Between Pagan's recent injury and the $21.5M due to him over the next two seasons, he should be attainable at a low cost, but the Tigers may not be willing to rely on a 33 year old coming off of back surgery.
One overlooked option could be the familiar face of Austin Jackson. Despite his sub-par performance after his trade, Jackson still has a solid bat from the right side. And while his glovework has been on a slow decline the Tigers may still believe he possesses the defensive prowess he once showed. Jackson will be in his final year of arbitration and will have a significant salary that the Mariners may not be excited to pay. If, miraculously, the Tigers only need a one-year stopgap until Daniel Fields, Devon Travis, or Derek Hill is ready to take over, Jackson could be a perfect fit.
And that brings us full-circle. Honestly, Dombrowski could go in any of a hundred different directions, most of them not even mentioned here, and nothing should surprise us. A lot will depend on how dedicated he is to his new defense and baserunning philosophy, but a lot will also depend on his unknown budget.