Leyland tasked with deciding who bats cleanupCabrera, Fielder both used to batting in No. 4 spot in order
Leyland talks lineup changes
01/26/12 - 03:50
Tigers manager Jim Leyland talks about his lineup after the addition of Prince Fielder and shifting Miguel Cabrera to third base
By Jason Beck / MLB.com | 01/26/12 10:59 AM EST
DETROIT -- The Tigers have their protection for Miguel Cabrera in the batting order with Prince Fielder. Could they also have their new cleanup hitter?
When Detroit lost Victor Martinez last week with what is expected to be a season-ending knee injury, the Tigers embarked on a wide-ranging effort to find a bat to replace him. Fielder goes well beyond replacement level, providing not just a run producer but one of the most respected power-hitting sources in the game. He was mainstay in the fourth spot of the Brewers' batting order, batting there for all 162 games of the Brewers schedule last season, and all but 38 games over the last three years.
However, he joins a Detroit ballclub that has batted Cabrera in the fourth spot in 338 games over that same time span, including all but one of his 159 starts last season.
Somebody's going to have to move, up or down in the order. It won't necessarily be Fielder.
For the last three years, Tigers manager Jim Leyland has been consistent in his reasoning for batting Cabrera fourth. Rather than sending him up to bat in the opening inning with two out and nobody on and allowing the opposing pitcher to work around him, Leyland would say, the fourth spot gives the Tigers three chances to put a runner on base for their most productive hitter. To Leyland, that maximized his RBI opportunities, though it also ran the risk of having Cabrera leading off the second inning with nobody on base. The side benefit also provided a tantalizing spot ahead of Cabrera in the order to put an aggressive extra-base hitter, who would be all but guaranteed to see strikes to hit because nobody wants to bring up Cabrera with a walk.
Leyland knew the arguments for batting Cabrera third, but disagreed with them. It wasn't until last year that he really entertained the discussion. Once the Tigers lost Magglio Ordonez and Delmon Young to injuries during the American League Championship Series last October, he did more than discuss the idea, bumping Cabrera to third and batting Martinez cleanup five times during the six-game series.
With Fielder, Leyland might actually have a hitter as good -- and more importantly, just as feared -- as Cabrera. Fielder's 32 intentional walks led the Majors last year, eight more than National League MVP runner-up Matt Kemp and AL OPS leader Jose Bautista. Cabrera, with Martinez producing hits behind him, saw his intentional-walk total drop from 32 in 2010 to 22 last year.
Fielder might actually be good enough to challenge the notion that the only hitter who can protect Cabrera is Cabrera.
Leyland is notorious for making out lineups during the offseason, sometimes simply to pass the time. When he learned of Martinez's injury, he admitted last week, he started filling out lineups without him in the fifth spot. More surprising, he didn't dismiss the idea that Cabrera could move up in the order.
"Somebody asked me the question," Leyland said last Wednesday at Toledo Mud Hens Fandemonium. "Does this have an effect on Cabrera hitting third or fourth? Most likely, sure, it probably does. But I don't have the answer how it's going to work out just yet."
In the days since Fielder agreed to terms, Leyland has likely had time to think about more lineups fitting two MVP-caliber hitters in optimal positions. The main question in the lineups has been presumed to be the defensive positions for the twin sluggers, but batting order could be a point of contention, too.
If Leyland bumped Cabrera to third and batted Fielder fourth, of course, he'd have to figure out a fifth hitter to bat behind Fielder. Young could be an ideal candidate, sandwiching the left-handed-hitting Fielder between a pair of right-handed power hitters.
However, it would be a different challenge for Young than what he faced upon arrival in Detroit last August. As an aggressive hitter, Young arguably benefited greatly from hitting ahead of Cabrera, whose presence served as a major motivation for opponents to throw Young strikes and not put him on base.
If Young bats fifth, that deterrent would have to come from someone else. It could be Alex Avila, whose first season as Detroit's regular catcher saw him bat .295 with 82 RBIs and an .895 OPS. It could be Brennan Boesch, whose big swing posted a .799 OPS and 42 extra-base hits in 428 at-bats before suffering a season-ending thumb injury. Both are left-handed hitters, though Boesch proved productive batting second and balancing out the top third of the lineup.
Even Jhonny Peralta, who hit 25 doubles and 21 homers in a career rejuenvation in 2011, could provide the answer. He hit sixth in 61 games last season, while batting .307 with runners in scoring position.Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.