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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

TIGERS PREVIEW: Position-by-position — Outfield

(Torii Hunter, RF [pictured]; Austin Jackson, CF; Andy Dirks, LF)

The Tigers’ outfield, in flux for so much of last season — thanks to injuries and inconsistency — appears to be much more stable at the start of 2013.

Much of that is due to the signing of Torii Hunter, who takes over in right field.

In Hunter, the Tigers are getting a solid defensive player who has nine Gold Gloves on his resume as a center fielder, and logged 14 outfield assists last year. Angels manager Mike Scioscia campaigned for Hunter to win a 10th Gold Glove, his first in right field, in 2012: “There’s no right fielder that’s played at his level, I know that,” the manager told ESPN in September.

Despite his age, he still plays a lot like the guy who will line up to his right this season, center fielder Austin Jackson, the guy who’s been playing at a Gold Glove-caliber level for the past several seasons. He even looks a bit like him.

“He’s a lot slimmer than I was. I was jacked,” Hunter laughed in an interview on MLB Network Radio’s “Power Alley” show. “He has quick feet. He’s out there, he gets really good jumps, and good routes. And just watching him, man, he looks like me when I was younger.

“All we’re going to do is, I’m going to keep watching him — he’s always asking questions, and I answer them for him, but he doesn’t need much, at all. He’s three years in. The guy seems like he’s been around a long time, but he’s having fun.”

Hunter will plug into the No. 2 hole in the lineup behind Jackson in the lineup, the same spot he hit last year, behind MVP runner-up Mike Trout.

“It’s amazing because (with) Trout and (Albert) Pujols, I had the same thing, and now I have pretty much the same thing over here, with Cabrera, who’s probably the best hitter in baseball ... and Austin Jackson, .300 hitter last year, and has all the speed in the world,” Hunter said on the radio show.

“It’s the same thing. If Austin’s on first, I have to change my approach, trying to get him over, get him in scoring position for Cabrera. So I have to ‘kill self,’ because I want to hit that double, so he can go ahead and score, but I have to ‘kill self,’ and try to get him over, or at least allow him to steal, so I have to take pitches and work the count until he’s able to steal. And then try to get him to third, so Cabrera can hit that fly ball, or double or homer, so he can get him in.

“So you have to ‘kill’ and die the self, to help the team.”

Like the much younger Jackson, Hunter hit .300 for the first time in his career in 2012. Part of that was due to successfully making the adjustment of playing in the No. 2 hole, and part, assuredly, was hitting in between Trout and Pujols.

But there are concerns that he might not be able to duplicate that, given his advancing age, and an unsustainable batting average on balls in play last season.

“Yeah, I mean, people say ‘Torii’s old, he’s not going to do anything,’ this and that. But you’ve gotta look at the way I play the game. I mean, my whole career, I hit fourth, fifth and sixth, so I had to swing for the fence, and try to drive runs in. And I did,” Hunter told the “Power Alley hosts.

“Right now, hitting second allows me to be the athlete that I am, just try to get guys over, don’t swing hard, kind of control the bat, different things like that. So it keeps me under control, and I’m able to drive the ball up the middle, and go to right-center, and I have a little more bat control at the plate.

“But when I was hitting fourth, fifth and sixth, I’m trying to take you DEEP.”

Austin Jackson did his share of taking pitchers deep from the leadoff spot. Despite missing nearly a month with a strained muscle in his side, he set career highs in home runs (16) and RBI (66) and led the American League in triples (10). He also drew more walks than he ever had before, and cut down his strikeout rate.

The only number that really went down was stolen bases, which dropped to 12, after 27 and 22 in his first two seasons.

“If somebody told me that Austin Jackson would to exactly what he did last year, and maybe steal a few more bases, I’d be the happiest guy in Detroit,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I’d be thrilled.

“You just don’t take leaps and bounds in this league. You just get a little bit better. He’s at the point now, where if he just gets a little bit better, that’s pretty good.

“He’s survived the freshman year and the sophomore year and the junior year. Now he’s ready to be a consistent major league player. Could get a little bit better, but if somebody told me he’d do what he did last year, and maybe steal a few more bags, I’d be thrilled.”

Andy Dirks came into the spring having solidified his spot on the roster with a strong — albeit injury-plagued — sophomore season.

“The one thing about Dirks, he’s a ballplayer. He does a lot of things well, but you could say nothing great,” GM Dave Dombrowski said. “He’s not a great power hitter, not a real fast guy, not a Gold Glove guy — but he does them all very solidly.”

Dirks will be the starter in left field for the preponderance of games, but it’s likely he will start fewer than either Hunter or Jackson.

That’s not necessarily because the left-handed hitting Dirks can’t hit left-handed pitching, or because he’s not considered an ‘everyday’ player. As much as anything, it’s a concern that he might not hold up if he plays every day, a nod to concerns that his lower-body injuries last year, which limited him to just 88 games, were in part caused by overuse.

“Dirks hit .273 off lefties last year. It’s not that I think I can’t play Dirks against lefties, I just don’t know if I can play him every single day without him being off the field for a few days. I want to try to keep him going. I think he can play every day, but I think you’ve gotta be careful with it,” Leyland said.

“I’m not saying he’s not an everyday player, I’m just saying that — from what I’ve seen the last couple of years — you gotta watch that close, and not get greedy. That’s what I think. I don’t know if I’m right, but that’s what I think.”

If Dirks doesn’t play, it’ll be either Matt Tuiasosopo (R) or Don Kelly (L) who get the nod. Tuiasosopo won the competition to be the right-handed hitting fourth outfielder this spring, but that won’t be the trump card in determining when the starter sits.

“There’s a possibility Andy Dirks could get a day off against a right-hander, if I think the danger zone is coming,” Leyland said. “If you need to rest a guy, you need to rest him. Doesn’t matter who’s pitching.”


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