DETROIT – Tuesday should have been a celebratory night for the Detroit Tigers. They exploded for 12 runs to win their sixth game in a row and get back above .500 at 17-16.
It was a huge win because it pulled the Tigers within a half-game of the Toronto Blue Jays for the final AL wild card spot. But it was also a costly one, because they lost starting center fielder JaCoby Jones for the rest of the season.
Jones has been one of the unluckiest players in baseball the last several years. In 2017, he missed a month after being hit in the face by a pitch. Last year, he was enjoying his best offensive season when he was hit in the wrist in early August. He didn’t play again.
There have been multiple close calls again this season that left Jones bending out of the way of high fastballs and glaring out at the mound -- understandable for someone who has had so many setbacks because of that very pitch.
But bad luck struck again Tuesday, when Milwaukee Brewers reliever Phil Bickford made his MLB debut and hit Jones in the hand. The Tigers announced his hand was fractured, so he’ll have to start the rehab process all over again.
It’s a tough blow for a Tigers team that already lost first baseman C.J. Cron for the season and just traded away outfield depth in Cameron Maybin. The question now becomes: How does a team on the edge of contention replace one of its best players without the ability to make a trade?
After Tuesday’s game, manager Ron Gardenhire hinted that Victor Reyes would move to center field and allow Christin Stewart and Travis Demeritte to become the everyday starters at the corner outfield spots.
That is absolutely not the answer.
While Reyes has managed to become a solid defensive corner outfielder, he’s not the type of player the Tigers should stick in center field every day, especially in the spacious Comerica Park. The outfield defense would be especially glaring if Stewart and Demeritte were his corner companions.
With Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize just breaking into the majors, the Tigers owe them as good a defensive lineup as possible, and that means not only bringing up Derek Hill, but giving him the starting job.
Gardenhire announced Wednesday morning on 97.1 The Ticket that Hill would take Jones’ open spot on the 28-man roster. Hill was fabulous during summer camp, wowing Tigers fans with his glove in center field and providing the occasional hit. He shouldn’t be trapped at the end of the bench. He should be playing.
Is it an ideal scenario? No. The Tigers would rather pitchers stop hitting Jones with high fastballs. But it’s the best solution they’ve got.
Hill was a former No. 1 overall pick and ranks near the cut line of the team’s top 30 prospects. He’s 24 years old and deserves a chance to at least show what he can do.
Hill’s presence in center field will allow Reyes to stay at one of the corners with a possible platoon of Stewart and Demeritte in the other.
Assuming Hill can be a bit of an improvement over Jones defensively, all he has to do is hold his own at the plate. During the Tigers’ recent 8-2 run, Jones was slashing just .250/.313/.321 with two doubles, two walks and 11 strikeouts. The Tigers proved they can still win without great offensive numbers in center field.
Gardenhire has done a great job keeping this team afloat after a nine-game losing streak. But these lineups -- sometimes they just don’t make much sense.
Why is Grayson Greiner, who needed a home run off of a shortstop to get his average over .100 and OPS over .500, batting anywhere other than ninth? Willi Castro’s slugging percentage is higher than Greiner’s OPS, yet he was behind him in the order.
Also, Isaac Paredes needs to be in the lineup. Whether it’s moving Niko Goodrum to make room for both Paredes and Castro or giving Castro innings in the outfield, both need to be starting every day.
And no, Paredes shouldn’t hit ninth, either.
Reyes, Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario have been the team’s most consistent hitters and deserve to be at the top of the lineup. Miguel Cabrera has earned his spot, too, slashing .433/.486/567 in his last eight games with one strikeout and four walks.
But beyond those four, Gardenhire needs to give the kids a chance. Goodrum has 50 strikeouts and a .644 OPS in 129 plate appearances. Maybe a move down in the order would relieve some pressure and give him a spark.
The lineup should look something like this:
- Victor Reyes, LF/RF
- Jonathan Schoop, 2B
- Miguel Cabrera, DH
- Jeimer Candelario, 1B
- Isaac Paredes, 3B
- Willi Castro, SS/LF
- Niko Goodrum (SS/LF) or Christin Stewart (LF) or Travis Demeritte (RF)
- Austin Romine, C
- Derek Hill, CF
Basically, seven players should be locked into everyday spots at one position and Castro should take over at shortstop or left field. The ninth spot could either go to Goodrum -- if Castro has displaced him at shortstop -- or a platoon of Stewart and Demeritte -- if Goodrum stays at shortstop and Castro can’t transition to the outfield.
It’s a miracle the Tigers are so close to a playoff spot after losing nine in a row, but they’ll have to overcome the loss of Jones a lot quicker than they did the loss of Cron, or else their postseason hopes will be long gone by the end of next week.