On Thursday, the Tigers traded Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels and promptly blew a huge hole in their lineup and starting outfield. Gone are Maybin and his 89 games started in 2016, as well as his 120 wRC+ from the top of the lineup. Now the Tigers must look deep inside themselves to find someone to replace that kind of production, but first they will have to find someone to simply start some games in center field.
Shortly after the trade, general manager Al Avila told reporters, “There will be a wide open competition starting in the spring and we’ll see how it plays out.” From the outside looking in, it doesn’t appear the Tigers will seek help from outside the organization, so this leaves them with internal candidates to fill the role. There’s no clear replacement for Maybin already in the system, unfortunately, but there are several warm bodies that will likely be given the chance to do so.
The Obvious Choices
Gose began the 2016 season as the starting centerfileder due to a spring training injury that left Maybin with a fractured hand. However, after an Opening Day home run in Miami, the season quickly went south on the 25-year-old Gose, and by mid-May, he found himself headed to Triple-A Toledo. By all measures, he regressed from his first season with Detroit in 2015. Gose hit a paltry .208/.287/.341 with 38 strikeouts and nine walks in 30 games. He also saw his defensive performance take a tumble, possibly due to some discomfort with playing deeper in the outfield than he had in previous years.
Things got even worse in the minors as his hitting fell to even worse levels. Then, after an altercation with Mud Hens manager Lloyd McLendon, Gose was demoted to Double-A Erie where he remained for the rest of the season, posing results comparable to those he put up in Detroit. If not for this Maybin trade, one may have argued Gose was a possible non-tender candidate, but now he will be right back in the mix for a starting job in spring training. He will have to earn the trust of the coaches back and won’t be handed the starting job. Still, he is probably a front runner for the job based on his past experience in the majors.
Tyler Collins found himself on the Tigers Opening Day roster thanks to a strong showing in spring training and the afore mention Maybin injury. Things did not work out too well for Collins, though, culminating in a memorable NSFW gesture that got him sent down to the minors. Fortunately, Collins was able to over come it though and earned himself a return to Detroit after the All-Star break. He went on a tear for most of August before cooling off down the stretch.
On the defensive side of things, Collins surprised many fans when he got semi-regular starts in center field. He didn’t fool anyone into thinking he is a natural out there, though. He has the hustle to not be completely overmatched in center, but he’s still just a reserve corner outfielder who can fake it in center from time to time. If Collins has a role in the center field picture, it will almost certainly be as part of a platoon. He is out of minor league options in 2017 so I think he will get a long look in spring training. His odds of making the Opening Day roster in some form have certainly improved.
Jones turned heads in spring training with his raw athleticism, but had to sit out the first 38 games of the year to finish off the remainder of his 50-game MiLB suspension for recreational drug use last year. Once eligible to return, he went to Double-A Erie where he lit up the box score with a .991 OPS over 20 games, earning a promotion to Triple-A Toledo. Jones had a bit of an adjustment period at that level, cooling off significantly over the mid-summer months before getting hot in August. He earned an early call-up before September roster expansions, though this was more due to the lack of offensive production at third base in Detroit after Nick Castellanos hit the disabled list.
Despite a memorable debut in the Motor City, Jones quickly found himself overmatched by major league pitching. Acquired in the Joakim Soria trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, Jones has split time between center field and shortstop, and has the natural athleticism to play both at a respectable level. Judging by his play in the Arizona Fall League, the Tigers seem to view Jones as a center fielder over an infielder. That could earn him an Opening Day nod in 2017, though he has minor league options remaining. He is also still quite raw and only 24 years old. However, given that both Gose and Collins bat left-handed, the right-handed Jones could have the inside track to a platoon role in center at the very least.
The long shots
I’m not even going to pretend that Romine is a legitimate option to be an everyday center fielder. The career utility infielder showed an expanded role in 2016, taking some outfields reps as the Tigers hoped to develop him into a super-utility type player a la Don Kelly, but Romine is a square peg trying to fill a vast circular hole. He’s nothing special with the bat, though he holds his own for a utility player, and he can play centerfield in a pinch and not be terrible. There is practically no scenario in which the Tigers open the season with him as part of any center field platoon. If he is, something has gone terribly wrong.
Bernard is a scrappy young player who made a big impression on the Tigers when he was signed as a minor league free agent in 2014. He won the 2014 Midwest League MVP Award after a stellar season in Single-A. He was a surprising add to the 40-man roster prior to 2015 and continued to prove scouts wrong by excelling at Double-A Erie, hitting .301 with 43 steals in 2015. However he couldn’t quite repeat his success in 2016 at the Triple-A level, managing a meager .235 average and just 11 steals for the Mud Hens. Midway through 2016, Bernard was designated for assignment and outrighted back to Double-A where he was able to find his past success again. He ended the season on a positive note, hitting over .300 again with a surprising amount of power.
Bernard is never going to be a top prospect, as scouts continually point to his simply average tools and don’t see anything special. But what he lacks in raw ability -- make no mistake, there’s some speed there -- he makes up for in heart and hustle. He has proven skeptics wrong numerous times and there are no shortage of major league success stories of guys who simply force their way into a major league job through sheer willpower. If there was ever a year for Bernard to get a shot, this is it. It won’t be easy and he’ll have to blow away the competition in spring training, but don’t count him out yet, because he loves proving people wrong.
The Tigers’ seventh round pick in 2013 spent all of last season at Double-A Erie, where he served as their primary center fielder and posted a decent .742 OPS. However, his biggest weakness is his plate discipline. He has managed a strikeout rate near or above 25 percent since being drafted and it showed no signs of going away in 2016. Harrell can play all 3 outfield positions well and this will be what keeps him at least on the periphery of the conversation for a job in Detroit. However, his bat may keep him from getting a legitimate shot. At 25 years old, there’s not much more room for improvement offensively, so he’s going to need a lot of help or figure something out fast to see any time in the Comerica outfield.
I’d love to tell you there’s potential for a magical combination here or a hidden gem in the system, but the immediate picture for center field in 2017 is pretty barren. The Tigers could probably cobble together at least a defensively average platoon next year, but that’s hoping for a major turnaround from Gose and Jones on the offensive side of the ball. Collins will probably start the year as part of the outfield crew in some capacity, but his role as a starter is in question. The Tigers will probably add a minor league player or two in the Nate Schierholtz or John Mayberry Jr. vein and see what happens in spring. Baring another trade that brings a ready-made center fielder to Detroit, the Tigers are probably looking at a major downgrade from Maybin in 2017.