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Tigers Den Roundtable: Who should bat 2nd in the Tigers lineup?

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You know baseball is almost back when we start complaining about lineup construction!

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For years, Detroit Tigers fans have railed on their team’s lineup construction. From Miguel Cabrera hitting cleanup for far too long to Don Kelly occasionally hitting too high in the order to Victor Martinez’s ugly 2015 season, fans have relentlessly taken swings at the team’s manager — both Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus took their lumps — for how he fills out the lineup card.

Oddly enough, we saw a bit of a reprieve from this criticism last season. Fans wondered who would bat second in the order, but those questions quickly subsided after Cameron Maybin’s emergence as an on-base machine.

Maybin is gone this year, leaving the Tigers in the same position as last February. Earlier this week, Ausmus announced that Justin Upton would get the first crack at hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera, just like last year. Is it the right move? Only time will tell, but we decided to debate it anyway.

This week's question: who should bat second in the Tigers lineup this season?

Ashley: I'll go with Justin Upton. Provided his bat doesn't get soggy again, he probably makes the most sense between Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera. I don't see a lot of potential for No. 2 batters lower in the lineup, except maybe Nick Castellanos, who could be interesting in the second spot instead of fifth or lower. I think we will see a few different options here throughout the year, but if Upton is decent, it's his spot to lose.

Patrick: Jose Iglesias could be the new Placido Polanco. With a career slash line of .275/.325/.353 for a wOBA of .300, he would be just fine batting behind Kinsler. Iglesias led the major leagues with a 91.1 percent contact rate last season, including 96.9 percent when the ball was in the strike zone. Batting ahead of Cabrera, Iglesias should see plenty of strikes. He also had the lowest strikeout rate in the American League, at just 9.7 percent. He will need to do better than his .255 batting average that he posted in 2016, but he hit over .300 in each of the two prior seasons, with an on-base percentage of .347 or better. Putting him in front of the thunder sticks that follow in the Tigers' order could be just what he needs to return to form.

Les: Ian Kinsler's 28 home runs in 2016 were a welcome and unexpected surprise, an increase from 11 the previous year. If that power carries over even slightly going into 2017, the Tigers will benefit from having it with a potential runner on. But even without the extra oomph, Kinsler's batted ball profile fits remarkably well in the two-slot, where his career 12.3 percent strikeout rate and 35.0 percent ground ball rate (both well below league-average) reduce the risk of double plays.

[Ed.: By sheer coincidence, Les was absent after we asked who should bat leadoff.]

Jeff: It can’t be Justin Upton. They tried that last year and it didn’t go so well. You can’t ignore the mental side of the game, and batting second might have put too much pressure on him. So it is really between Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias. Nick saw better production last year, with a higher batting average (.285) and higher on-base percentage (.331). However, if he develops more in the power department it could be wasted in the No. 2 slot. Iglesias has outstanding plate discipline numbers (including an 89.2 percent contact rate) but if he hits like he did last year instead of his prior levels, then it is not enough production for second in the order. Ideally, I would like to see everyone move up in the order and insert J.D. Martinez third — Kinsler-Cabrera-J.D. Martinez-Victor-Upton-Castellanos-Collins-Iglesias-McCann — but that is not going to happen. So, I am going with Iglesias and hoping he bounces back.

John: For years, folks in the advanced statistics community have been pushing the belief that a team’s best player should bat second. Maybe it’s time for Detroit to see how that goes. Miguel Cabrera should take his cuts in the No. 2 spot, and here’s why.

Kinsler, the next best candidate for that spot in the order, is going to be needed to lead off because there really isn’t anyone else who can do it. Your ideal No. 2 hitter is someone who gets on base at a high rate and doesn’t hit into double plays. Cabrera’s on-base percentage for his career is a robust .399. I realize he hits into a fair number of double plays, but I would hazard a guess Cabrera batting behind Ian Kinsler would result in more two on and none out situations — or, even better, scoring a run or two — than having anyone else in the lineup there. Moving Cabrera to second in the order also frees up the number three spot for Justin Upton. Based on Upton’s 2016 numbers, a suggestion to bat him third sounds silly, but when you look at the stats, Upton loves that spot in the lineup. Over his career, he carries a .279 average with an .832 OPS while grading out at around 25 home runs per 162 games when batting third. If Detroit wants to maximize their offensive production, they should put Cabrera second.

Brandon: I'm going to agree with John here. I've wanted Cabrera hitting second for a while now, and this seems like the time to finally do it. The Tigers are one of the best hitting teams in the game, and their power numbers should be right up near the top of the league. But they simply aren't going to become a good baserunning team without personnel changes. Calls for more bunts, more sacrifices, and "manufacturing" runs are misguided strategies with this collection of players. The best solution, in my opinion, is to make sure your best hitters get the most at-bats possible.

Moving Cabrera to the second spot eliminates the need for a classic on-base guy, and should give Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Upton and the rest more trips to the plate to do the kind of damage the Tigers offense relies on. We know that spots two through five or six in the order see the most runners on base ahead of them, but the difference between spots is barely noticeable. Concerns that Cabrera won't have as many runners to drive in also seem based on guesswork rather than reality. Finally, I love the idea of a starting pitcher facing Kinsler in the first inning with Cabrera in the on-deck circle. Too often, teams give a pitcher a pair of easier outs to start a game. I would very happy to show them Kinsler, Cabrera and J.D. Martinez from the drop.

Kyle: There is no denying that Justin Upton had a poor start to 2016, but he still deserves a shot at the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Upton looked better in the second half of the season and still has the ability to get on base with decent speed to make himself valuable near the top of the order. The Tigers are fortunate to have a handful of players who could slot in here, but Upton makes the most sense given his combination of speed and power. He has the ability to drive in Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler if they are ahead of him, and can score frequently with the three mashers right behind him. Upton was not good in 2016, but he is trending in the right direction. Do not let a shockingly bad part of last season void what could be a great asset for Detroit in 2017.

Rob: Call me crazy, but I might try Victor Martinez in front of Cabrera. The ideal No. 2 hitter should provide a few things, and Martinez checks all of those boxes.

  • A high on-base percentage: Martinez got on base at a .351 clip last season, fourth on the team (minimum 100 plate appearances). Only two returning players fared better — Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, to no surprise — and they would fit better as the power tandem directly behind Martinez.
  • A low strikeout rate: Martinez’s 14.8 percent strikeout rate was second-best among Tigers hitters with at least 100 trips to the plate last season. Only Jose Iglesias was better.
  • A low double play rate: Martinez grounded into 19 double plays last season, the second-highest total on the team. However, his 37.3 percent ground ball rate was the fourth-lowest on the team, and better than the likes of Cabrera, Upton, J.D. Martinez, and Jose Iglesias.

Martinez’s left-handed bat may also play well in the No. 2 spot. Teams may be more reluctant to aggressively shift him with the speedy Kinsler on first base, and Martinez could pull the ball into the gap left open by a first baseman holding Kinsler on. Martinez’s baserunning deficiencies don’t play well anywhere in the order, but are slightly mitigated by (a) Cabrera’s team-leading .247 ISO directly behind him, and (b) Cabrera’s lack of speed. Sure, Martinez might not score from first on a double like Upton or Iglesias would, but he wouldn’t hold up Upton on the basepaths either.