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Detroit Tigers' outfield puzzle remains unsolved

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Cameron Maybin may be an upgrade in center field, but his skill set isn't the best fit for this roster.

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The Detroit Tigers entered the offseason in need of two outfielders: a left fielder to replace Yoenis Cespedes and a part-time center fielder to replace Rajai Davis, who had platooned with Anthony Gose. They also desperately needed pitching. Starting pitching, relief pitching, a pitching coach (after Jeff Jones' unexpected retirement), and then more pitching were all on the shopping list. With the worst starting rotation, the worst bullpen, and the lowest scoring offense in the American League in the second half of the 2015 season, the Tigers had multiple needs that if they hoped to return to contender status in 2016.

A trade netted the Tigers their closer in Francisco Rodriguez. They have always prioritized having that "proven closer" on the roster, and have devoted a significant share of available funds to have one in most seasons. To general manager Al Avila's credit, he was able to land one at below market rate without mortgaging the future.

Next, the Tigers acquired Cameron Maybin, who returns to Detroit with nine-plus MLB seasons under his belt. Maybin, an established everyday center fielder when healthy, has yet to fulfill the promise of a player who was once traded for Miguel Cabrera. Detroit will pay Maybin $5.5 million in 2016 with a team option for 2017, gambling again on his potential for improvement.

Avila indicated that Maybin's role in the outfield would be determined by Brad Ausmus and his staff.

"Some people feel he should be playing center and Anthony Gose in left. Some people feel he should be playing left and Gose in center. And we still have Tyler Collins, obviously. That’s the beauty of (Maybin) — we feel good about him either way."

Maybin has never been a left fielder. In the nine seasons since he left Detroit, he has not played a single inning in a corner outfield position. Only in his rookie season in 2007, with Curtis Granderson firmly entrenched as the Tigers’ center fielder, did Maybin log 10 games in left field. This isn't to say that he can’t play the position, but he has never done it. Shifting Maybin to left field to keep Anthony Gose in the lineup makes for little offensive firepower, and neither makes for a platoon mate with Colliins.

Maybin ranked 19th of 23 full-time center fielders with a .307 wOBA in 2015, which was a good season for him. He hit .267/.327/.370 for a .697 OPS, which also ranked 19th. Among qualified left fielders he would rank 15th of 16 in both categories. Maybin's career splits don't help the comparison. Left field is a more offensive position, and Maybin’s offense does not play well in the corner, even if the defensive adjustment goes smoothly. Given his offensive shortcomings, Maybin's best role may be that of an everyday center fielder, but the Tigers already have a capable player in that role.

Maybin is also not a platoon player. Although he bats right-handed, he carries a wRC+ of 93 against right-handed pitchers compared to an 80 wRC+ against lefthanders. Given his $5.5 million salary and a $9 million team option next season, the Tigers are not paying Maybin just to have him platoon with Gose. Rajai Davis would be a better option if that were the role, because he hits left-handed pitching better than Maybin. However, the Tigers do not seem interested in retaining Davis now that they have Maybin in the fold.

The greatest need in the Tigers’ outfield was created by the departure of Yoenis Cespedes. Collins hit .266/.316/.417 for a 99 wRC+ in just over 200 plate appearances in 2015. Against right-handed pitching, he fared slightly better. Collins is a below average left fielder offensively, and certainly no replacement in the lineup for Cespedes. Collins would rank 22nd of 36 in wOBA among AL left fielders who logged at least 200 plate appearances in 2015. If he is to play a major role in the Tigers’ outfield in 2016, he must continue to improve, but the Tigers still need more.

It seems unlikely that the Tigers will go big for another offensive player to replace Cespedes. The holes in their starting rotation and in the bullpen, are more pressing needs that have to be addressed with the limited resources they have. It would help to add another outfielder, though, and that could be anyone from Ryan Raburn to Ryan Braun. Budgetary constraints may limit their options, but the Tigers could use a complimentary partner for Collins and Maybin in left field.

It is also possible that the Tigers will move Gose in a trade for either a corner outfielder or some pitching help. With both Maybin and Gose on the roster, another corner outfielder would give them five, with just Andrew Romine as a backup infielder. That is not a problem by itself, but any other arrangement makes less sense. The acquisition of Maybin may prove to be an upgrade to the roster, but there are as many questions about the lineup today as there were before the trade.