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The Tigers’ center field situation might be better than you think

Tyler Collins and Mikie Mahtook could be a capable duo offensively.

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Much has been said and written about the Detroit Tigers’ decision to trade Cameron Maybin after the end of the 2016 season. Maybin was a pleasant surprise in 2016, hitting .315/.383/.418, an .801 OPS. He fit nicely in the second spot in the lineup behind leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler. Maybin played in only 94 games for the Tigers last year, missing 42 percent of the season. Earlier this month, Kyle pointed out that Maybin is a strong candidate for regression in 2017. In fact Steamer projects him to hit just .259/.324/.369, which is very close to his career line of .259/.322/.373 in over 3,000 plate appearances.

The Tigers paid $5.6 million for Maybin in 2016, with the Atlanta Braves kicking in the rest of his $8.1 million salary. Detroit had the option of bringing Maybin back for an encore at a cost of $9 million, but when you add the 30 percent luxury tax, he would cost them $11.7 million. For a team looking to reduce payroll, Maybin didn’t fit the budget. The Tigers will miss his offensive production, but what do they have to replace him?

The Tigers will likely put together a platoon in center field, with the most likely duo being the left-handed hitting Tyler Collins and right-handed Mikie Mahtook, the former first round draft choice who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in January. What might the Tigers expect with Collins batting against right-handed pitchers and Mahtook against lefties? The results might surprise you.

Player Split P.A. AVG OBP SLG OPS
Player Split P.A. AVG OBP SLG OPS
Maybin MLB Career 3.009 259 322 373 695
Mahtook MLB v LHP 144 276 322 537 859
Mahtook Pro v R/L 2,615 269 333 414 746
Collins MLB v RHP 334 265 321 431 753
Collins Pro v R/L 2,964 262 335 415 750
AL CF 2016 10,158 261 325 406 730

Feel free to sound the small sample alarm for the major league splits for both players here, but these splits are backed up by their six-year numbers at all professional levels against both left and right–handed pitching. If Collins and Mahtook are able to maintain these numbers at the major league level with the platoon advantage, they would be right in line with the average offensive production of an American League center fielder in 2016.

What about defense?

Detroit ranked 13th in the American League in center field in both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) last season. Maybin’s subpar defense contributed to that ranking. Division rivals Cleveland and Chicago were right with the Tigers at the bottom of the defensive rankings at the position. They can’t get much worse, or can they?

How the Tigers’ new dynamic duo will cover the vast expanse of center field in Comerica park is unknown. Mahtook has at least played the position somewhat, logging 237 games in center field as a professional ballplayer. Collins is a corner outfielder who has played 66 games — including 30 at the major league level — in center field. All but one of those games came last season, when Maybin’s absence pressed Collins into duty. We won’t get into the very limited data that is available to measure either player’s defense in center field.

Should Mahtook not be up to the task, he does have a minor league option left and could be swapped out for the versatile JaCoby Jones, his college teammate at LSU. In the event that Collins doesn’t fit either offensively or defensively, the Tigers have left-handed hitting Anthony Gose and Alex Presley still in the organization who can at least field the position. Collins is out of options, but the club might need the roster spot to put Gose or Presley on the roster.

The good news is that the Tigers don’t really have to replace Maybin’s offensive production with another center fielder. The offense could come from a healthy J.D. Martinez or Nick Castellanos, or Jose Iglesias returning to his career numbers at the plate. Just as long as they find a suitable replacement for the second spot in the order, and they find a player (or two) who can hold his own in center field defensively, they may not feel the loss of Maybin as much as initially feared.