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Mailbag: Why Alex Avila should bat second in 2015

Who will replace Victor Martinez? Who should bat second for the Tigers? What happened to Duane Below? These questions and more in this week's mailbag.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure: I am writing this post while the Grammys are on TV. I'm not watching, but when reflecting on the Tigers I can't help but think of the opening lines of "H.A.M.," a song off the 2011 Grammy-nominated album Watch the Throne by Kanye West and Jay-Z.

"It was all good just a week ago."

Never mind the next bar, as it goes into a far more vulgar place than I intend to. Things were all good for the Tigers a week ago as well. Victor Martinez had four intact menisci, the starting rotation was intact, and the Tigers were still projected to be the class of the AL Central. The most puzzling question anyone had sits directly below this paragraph. Now, the Tigers are scrambling to figure out how long Martinez will be out, and if they need to acquire a replacement for their leading hitter a season ago. There are bigger questions to be answered now.

I have changed my mind on how I think the lineup should be constructed several times throughout the offseason, and the numbers indicate that it won't really make that big of a difference over the course of the entire season. For starters, Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler seem to be locked into the top two spots against left-handed pitching. This removes roughly one-third of the lineup cards in question. A lot of these discussions also hinge on the relative health of Victor Martinez. If he has his meniscus repaired and is out for three months, we have bigger concerns than finding the right guy to hit in front of Miguel Cabrera.

That said, I'm becoming -- or "re-becoming," as it were -- a fan of putting Alex Avila second in the lineup. He doesn't have much speed and probably won't score from first base on many Miggy doubles, but his on-base percentage against right-handed pitchers is better than anyone else on the roster not named Cabrera or Martinez. Avila got on-base at a .340 clip against righties last season, and has done so a robust 35 percent of the time in his career. Yoenis Cespedes was at .311 last season, Nick Castellanos was at .301, and I don't think anyone expects J.D. Martinez to repeat his .357 OBP against right-handers again in 2015.

The only other option I might consider is Anthony Gose. He had a decent .329 on-base percentage against righties last season, which was higher than Torii Hunter (.312). Even if he doesn't improve much from that figure, he has the speed that Avila does not and can put himself into scoring position. Some people may be gunshy about the team running with Cabrera at the plate. This is a legitimate concern with some players, but Gose and Davis have the kind of speed that can occupy part of a pitcher's concentration any time they get on base.

Last year, Fangraphs published an interview with Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds about the idea of lineup protection. Votto, a relatively saber-inclined player, was adamant that he received the best "protection" not from who hit behind him in the lineup, but from who was in front of him. In particular, Votto praised Billy Hamilton, the heralded rookie center fielder who swiped 56 bases last season and broke Vince Coleman's record in the minor leagues in 2012. Gose doesn't have Hamilton's raw speed -- nor does anyone, really -- but he already has 34 stolen bases to his name and is projected to nearly double that total in 2015.

Yoenis Cespedes is a flawed player, but one that has been quite productive throughout his MLB career. A .263/.316/.464 hitter, Cespedes owns a career .336 wOBA and 115 wRC+. Defensive metrics indicate he's an above average defender in left field, and he has been worth 8.5 WAR. If we round up slightly -- call it accounting for the innings he spent in center field in Oakland, if you like -- he's a three-win outfielder set to hit free agency after his age 29 season.

As fate would have it, we just had one of those players hit the free agent market this offseason. Melky Cabrera signed a three year, $42 million contract with the Chicago White Sox in December, a move that surprised a lot of people at the time. There are several differences between the two players -- Cespedes is a better defender and has more power, Cabrera hits for average and gets on base more often -- but both are roughly three-win corner outfielders that are hitting the free agent market at the same age.

This doesn't mean that we should expect the same contract, though. Cabrera was projected to receive a five year, $66.25 million deal by MLB Trade Rumors back in October. He is coming off a two year, $16 million deal he signed directly after serving a suspension for testing positive for PED use in 2012. He had a tumor in his back in 2013 that resulted in a 86 wRC+ and -0.9 WAR in 88 games. He has had many more ups and downs than Cespedes, whose only real black mark is a 102 wRC+ in 2013. Cespedes will get far more than what Cabrera received, and likely more than he was projected more to receive. He's a more exciting, athletic player and has the name recognition to warrant an extra million or two per year. My guess would be a five year contract in the neighborhood of $75 million, especially if the Tigers advance deep into the postseason.

The luxury of hanging onto a question like this is that it makes for a much more interesting answer now than when it was posed. Two weeks ago, the Tigers were largely set with their roster and a reply would have amounted to little more than "maybe another relief arm." Lo and behold, the Tigers are now scouting Matt Albers, who missed nearly the entire 2014 season with a shoulder injury. I like this idea because Albers put up some decent numbers when he cut his walk rate in 2012 and 2013, but that doesn't make for a very interesting mailbag answer.

Now, we have Victor Martinez set to go under the knife for meniscus surgery tomorrow. We still don't know exactly what's going to happen -- he could be out for weeks or months -- but the more involved surgery will likely lead the team to look outside the organization for help. Dayan Viciedo was recently released by the White Sox, and the Tigers would not have to watch him struggle in the field. He hasn't done much of anything as a hitter at the MLB level either, but the Tigers picked up a similar struggling outfielder with oodles of raw power last season and now J.D. Martinez is an entrenched starter. It's not probable, and Martinez is a far better defender, but the Tigers don't have many options.

Beyond Viciedo, the options are even more bleak. Ryan Doumit and Jason Kubel are still free agents, and guys like Kyle Blanks and Brennan Boesch (don't laugh) are currently on minor league deals. Adam Lind might come cheap, though he's probably the best first baseman the Milwaukee Brewers have had since Prince Fielder left. The connection to Fielder is a bit ironic, as the Tigers were able to bail themselves out of Martinez's last injury by inking Prince to his current $214 million contract. There is no easy answer this time, so we just have to hope for the best tomorrow.

Hey, look at that! The New York Mets signed Duane Below to a minor league contract yesterday, but he will not receive an invite to major league camp this spring. There is almost zero chance that Below sees any time in the Mets' soon-to-be loaded starting rotation, which will feature young talents like Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard. National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom is also in the mix, and prospect Steven Matz is also knocking on the door. You might start to think its unfair how much good young pitching they have until you remember that they're the Mets.

Anyway, Below is still around and will be fighting for some low leverage innings as a left-hander in the Mets' bullpen this season. Best of luck to him, though I won't mind if Bryce Harper takes him deep in a late inning matchup should the situation arise. I'm hoping to catch a few more Nationals games in 2015.


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