DETROIT - At the beginning of the 2014 season the new-look Detroit Tigers were the talk of baseball. Two-time defending MVP Miguel Cabrera was healthy, Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis brought speed to Motown, and Austin Jackson was moving down in the lineup to a more comfortable role. For a month and a half ingredients old and new blended to yield nearly perfect results as the Tigers sat comfortably atop the American League Central Division standings with a 27-12 record and seven-game lead.
It was easy to ignore the continuing lack of production at shortstop when the rest of the lineup picked up the slack. But now, with the whole team struggling for the better part of a month, the Tigers have been forced to try some changes.
On Saturday, standout Minor League performer Eugenio Suarez made his first MLB start for Detroit after batting .302 with two home runs in 12 games with Triple-A Toledo. In his second at-bat of the night, Suarez hit a 385-foot blast to left field off of Red Sox ace Jon Lester.
Though Brad Ausmus will be careful not to overreact after one game, the first career hit by Suarez did tie him with the rest of the Tigers' shortstops combined in home runs this season. The 22-year-old needed just three plate appearances to do something that took the rest of the shortstops on the roster 44 games this season.
Was this home run Suarez's first step toward winning the starting job, or will the prospect merely become the latest aspiring shortstop to struggle and fade from the ranks?
Detroit scrambled to find an answer at shortstop after starter Jose Iglesias' shin injuries turned out to be much more severe than the organization previously thought. Dave Dombrowski traded Steve Lombardozzi, who was acquired in the Doug Fister trade, to the Baltimore Orioles for journeyman Alex Gonzalez, Detroit's Opening Day starter. Gonzalez earned just 30 at-bats in the Old English D before his release on April 20. He finished with five hits and two RBI, both on Opening Day.
Ausmus tried to fill the gap in-house, calling up longtime Mud Hen Danny Worth to replace Gonzalez. Worth hit .286 in his first nine games this season, but finished 1-21 with 10 strikeouts before the Tigers finally gave up on him and designated him for assignment to Toledo. Worth now faces the option to play in Toledo or test free agency.
The most common contributor at shortstop for Detroit has been 28-year-old Andrew Romine, who has played in 42 of the team's 58 games. Romine has struggled at the dish all season, sitting squarely at .200 with very little power. Of his 25 hits, three were doubles and one was a home run that just cleared the wall, banging low off the right-field foul pole.
In May Romine continued to post a low batting average, but combined it with poor plate discipline to cripple the bottom of the order. He walked just once in the entire month while striking out 19 times to decrease his on-base percentage from .326 to .258. His speed on the base paths was neutralized by his offensive struggles as he stole just one base in 23 games.
Reality suggests that Suarez will go through growing pains as a young player thrust into a starting Major League role. Every hit won't be a home run like Saturday and the 22-year-old won't score two runs each game.
But Suarez doesn't have to be great to offer Detroit an upgrade at shortstop. In fact, he doesn't even have to be average. The Tigers have gotten the second-worst production out of the shortstop position in the AL in terms of average (.196), on-base percentage, hits (38) and RBI (13), and the worst production in terms of slugging percentage (.258) and extra-base hits (seven).
It's reasonable to believe that Suarez, who hit .284 in 42 games in Double-A before dominating pitchers in Toledo, can maintain an average above .230 and provide some power for the bottom of the order. If he can, he'll certainly provide Detroit with more of a threat at the plate.
Perhaps even more importantly, Suarez can re-energize a Detroit defense that looked awful toward the end of May. The most important job for a shortstop is to act as the leader of the infield and anchor the defense as a whole. Detroit traded away one of its top prospects, Avisail Garcia, in 2013 to acquire a shortstop in Iglesias, who is known as one of the brightest young defenders in the game. Though his power at the plate is non-existent, Iglesias will always have a place in the lineup because of his elite defensive abilities.
But in addition to their struggles at the plate, Tiger shortstops have been awful in the field this season. Tied with Texas with the most errors in the AL (10), Detroit shortstops own the lowest fielding percentage (.960) of any team. As the regular starter, Romine is the main culprit, committing seven errors and posting a .955 fielding percentage.
Suarez showed flashes of his defensive abilities on Saturday, nearly turning a fantastic double play at second base and demonstrating great arm strength. In 54 minor-league games he posted a .962 fielding percentage, a slight improvement over the Tigers' shortstops this season.
Will Suarez actually win the starting shortstop position in 2014? He's only notched one MLB start in his career, but the statistics suggest he offers much more upside than the struggling Romine.
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