Sunday, April 17, 2011

Switching Jackson and Rhymes Not the Answer

Despite some explosive hitting by first baseman Miguel Cabrera and encouraging starts from youngsters Alex Avila and Brennan Boesch, the Tigers are struggling to score runs this April.  After scoring 4.6 runs per game in 2010, the Tigers have scored only 4.1 runs per game so far this year.  They are 8th in the American League in runs per game, 8th in batting average (.240), 9th in on base percentage and 7th in slugging (.392).

There are a number of players not carrying their weight in the early going.  Victor Martinez, who was signed to a four-year deal to beef up the middle of the line-up, is off to a slow start.  Magglio Ordonez has been in and out of the line-up with a sore ankle and hasn't hit when he has played.  However, these guys have track records which suggest they'll do better soon.  Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn have not been very productive, but we expect them to be hot and cold.

A bigger concern is the top of the line-up where sophomores Austin Jackson and Will Rhymes are not setting the table for the big hitters in the middle.  Jackson is batting .175 with 19 strikeouts in 57 at bats and has an OBP of just .281.  Rhymes is hitting .222 with a .286 OBP and has no extra base hits.  It is very early, but the problem with these two is that we can't be too confident that they'll snap out of it.

Jackson batted .293 and reached base at a .345 pace in his rookie campaign.  However, much of that was fueled by a .396 Batting Average on Balls in Play and a 24% line drive, numbers which most analysts agreed were unsustainable.  Almost all statistical projections saw his batting average taking a big hit this year.  He won't bat .175 all year, but he may not bat much higher than .250.  If that's the case, then it won't be enough for a man who hits for little power and has a modest walk rate. Sure, he's young and athletic and has the potential to improve, but they need him to produce this year too.    

Rhymes has never been a top prospect but impressed Jim Leyland with a .304 batting average in the 54 games in 2010.  He was rewarded with the starting second base job this spring, in part, because he out played Scott Sizemore in limited playing time last year.  Many analysts feel that Rhymes captured lightning in a bottle last year though and the fear is that he won't repeat his performance over a full season. Rhymes makes good contact, but it's very weak contact.  Thus, he has to bat .300 on a consistent basis in order to be a valuable major league regular.  You never want to count out a man who has played above expectations his whole life, but the odds are against him again. 

Today, Leyland switched their positions in the line-up putting Rhymes at lead off and Jackson at number two.  It appears to be a desperate attempt to spark the offense at the top of the order, but it's not likely to help. Jackson looks like a mess at the plate right now and it's going to take more than a move to the two hole to fix his swing and timing.  Similarly, I don't see the advantage of Rhymes leading off.  I think they both need more than a psychological push. 

What happens if Jackson doesn't hit this year?  AJax is going to be given a fairly long leash because he is a spectacular center fielder defensively. I can see him being dropped to the ninth spot in the line-up, but I doubt he'll be removed from the line-up any time soon.  They don't have a replacement that can field quite like him and the other center field options - Casper Wells and Clete Thomas - have their own problems making contact.  There is always Donnie Kelly, but Kelly as an every day player is something most of us don't want to think about.

Rhymes is in a tougher spot because his second base defense is only average and won't carry a weak bat.  I think if he doesn't hit by early May, he'll be replaced by Sizemore.  Sizemore struggled both offensively and defensively in his rookie campaign in 2010, but he was likely slowed by a bad ankle.  There is also a feeling among some that he pressed during his time in the majors.  If that's the case, he'll need to get over that but he seems to be pushing for another opportunity.  He's batting .387 with a .472 OBP for Toledo and we'll probably see him soon if Rhymes doesn't turn it around quickly.

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