Ryan Raburn’s 2010 season is looking very familiar. Last year, the Tigers outfielder finished strong down the stretch and ended up with an impressive .892 OPS in 291 plate appearances. He batted only .253 with a .778 OPS in spotty playing time through the first four months. Most of his damage was done in August and September when he batted .342/.403/.640 and was one of the Tigers’ key hitters in their central division title chase.
It was felt by some observers that Ryan’s strong finish earned him more regular playing time for 2010, but he found himself back on the bench for much of the first four months. He did not play well in his utility role batting just .211 with a .329 slugging average in 182 PA through July. Some embarrassing mishaps in the outfield did not help his cause either.
When Magglio Ordonez went down with an ankle injury in late July, Raburn got an opportunity for more playing time in left field with rookie Brennan Boesch switching to right field. Raburn has responded by batting .340/.389/.647 in 172 PA since August 1. The only American Leaguers with a higher slugging average during this period have been Blue Jays surprise slugger Jose Bautista (.664) and White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko (.656).
Raburn’s late season surge leaves some Tigers fans wondering once again whether be deserves a shot at a starting job. His .837 OPS over the last two seasons ranks him third among American League outfielders with 500 or more PA. For his career, he has posted a .857 OPS versus left-handed pitchers and a .753 OPS versus right-handers. So, he probably wouldn’t do quite as well in a full-time role.
There are concerns about his defense. He looks very awkward at times, but I think he makes up for some of that with a strong arm and decent range. His numbers don’t support the contention that he is an awful outfielder. In four partial seasons, he has a combined –3.5 Ultimate Zone Rating and +2 Fielding Bible Defensive Runs Saved. He’s certainly not a graceful outfielder but he seems adequate enough if he hits and may be a better defender with regular playing time at one position.
Ultimately, I think the 29-year-old Raburn will be a utility man again, backing up all three outfield positions and second base. Another season of 300 PA seems like a good bet, but a starting job is not out of the question at this point. With only center fielder Austin Jackson locked into a role for next season, the opportunity could be there. If Raburn gets out of the gate fast for a change, he could seize a regular job.