Day 11: The year of the not-quite-designated hitter

Jim Leyland revealed his likely lineup for Friday’s exhibition against Florida Southern, and it looked an awful lot like the lineup he rattled off at the Prince Fielder press conference. The one exception: It included Andy Dirks, but at DH, not left field. Delmon Young will start in left.

Leyland did not reveal much about his lineup for Sunday’s game against the Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium, their first big-league game with the DH (they likely won’t have it Saturday at the Braves), other than the fact that Ryan Raburn will start at second base that day. When he does, it probably still won’t reveal much about the DH slot.

“It looks like that’s going to be a swing thing,” Leyland said Thursday.

The Tigers do not have a full-time DH as of now, and there’s a very good chance they won’t when the season starts. They’ve talked about having a rotating DH ever since releasing Gary Sheffield in 2009; remember when Victor Martinez was going to get some DH starts and some catcher starts when he signed. This looks like their chance to try it out.

Some of the guys that DH this year might not want to do it, certainly not on a full-time basis. But this might be the best way to balance.

“When this is all said and done, this is going to all work out fine,” Leyland said, “because I believe this: I believe everybody out there has the best interests of the team in their heart. That will be a huge thing for our team. I believe that anybody out there would make some personal sacrifices for the good of this team. I believe that with all my heart. They’ve already showed it with Cabrera. So did Victor.”

He didn’t reference the DH spot in that quote. But he said more than once Thursday that it’s tougher for guys to DH than many fans think.

“Fans can say, ‘Well, you’ve got two guys [at the same spot], why wouldn’t you DH the lesser defender and play the better defender?’ Well, that makes sense,” Leyland said. “But, if by taking some really good player, he’s not able to do that because of the DH, then you have to think it out a little deeper.”

The Tigers ended up with a full-time DH last year for two reasons. First, Alex Avila turned out to be an All-Star catcher who warranted playing every day, even against a lot of lefties. Second, Victor Martinez’s knee sprain in August essentially ended his catching days, even before the catastrophic knee injury he suffered in January.

Martinez batted .340 as a DH last year with 12 homers, 90 RBIs and a .903 OPS. The only DH to match or top his production was David Ortiz, somebody who has DH’ed for years and annually wins the Outstanding DH Award.

“That’s why I keep emphasizing what an unbelievable job Victor Martinez did,” Leyland said. “That’s not easy to do for some players. Some players have to have the adrenaline flowing on both sides of the ball. Some players don’t know how to sit there between a long inning and wait it out and still be sharp and then go up to hit. So it’s not a slam dunk as everybody thinks that you can just put somebody as a DH that can hit. He can hit, but whether he can hit in the DH spot is a different question.

“I think it’s a kind of a shock to the system when you’ve been an everyday player and all of a sudden you’re a DH. That’s why I don’t think anyone will ever realize how great, in my opinion, Victor Martinez did last year. That was an unbelievable performance, unbelievable. That was not easy, to do what he did.”

Leyland likely won’t get any better idea this spring who can handle it and who can’t. It’s different to be a DH in spring training games, with a laid-back atmosphere, late-game substitutions and non-roster relievers in the late inning. Ramping up the intensity in the regular season while DHing is tougher.

2 Comments

JL on Victor as DH: “I don’t think anyone will ever realize how great, in my opinion, Victor Martinez did last year.”
Nice compliment, Jim, but don’t say “anyone” while I’m around. I think some of us understood Victor’s accomplishment as a DH. It was beyond even the highest of expectations.

have no idea who will end up with the most DH ABs this season. it might be whoever gets the most nagging injuries.

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