KISSIMMEE, FLORIDA – Austin Jackson has already bounced around the batting order a bit at spring training, hitting fifth, sixth and even fourth for the Detroit Tigers.
That one start in the cleanup spot — in a split-squad game last week — amused the fleet-footed center fielder a bit.
“If I’m hitting fourth, I think we might have some problems,” Jackson said.
Jackson may not expect to hit cleanup during the regular season, but at this point it’s not clear where he’ll end up in the lineup. He’s hit almost exclusively in the leadoff spot in his first four major league seasons, but the Tigers now have other potential options for the top of the order.
New manager Brad Ausmus hasn’t tipped his hand about his plans, although he did say Jackson will probably hit higher in the order at some point this spring.
“Sometimes it’s about getting guys at-bats in spring training,” Ausmus said.
Jackson hit leadoff in 2013, followed by Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. When those five players were in the lineup, that was generally the order, and it wasn’t until the postseason that manager Jim Leyland made a major switch, dropping the slumping Jackson to eighth during the AL championship series against Boston.
Leyland stepped down after the season and was replaced by Ausmus, and Detroit made a blockbuster trade, sending Fielder to Texas in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler. That gave the Tigers another potential leadoff hitter while removing Fielder’s powerful bat.
The switch-hitting Martinez seems likely to bat cleanup now, behind Cabrera. But who would hit in front of those two remains an open question.
Jackson stole eight bases last year, which was enough for the team lead — but Ausmus wants a more aggressive approach on the bases this season. Kinsler, a two-time 30-30 man, stole 15 bases in 2013 while posting an on-base percentage of .344. Jackson’s was .337.
The Tigers also signed outfielder Rajai Davis, who stole 45 bases in 51 attempts last year with Toronto. That’s 10 more than Detroit’s entire team stole in 2013.
The question is whether Davis can hit well enough to justify a spot high in the order. His career on-base percentage against left-handers is .354, but it’s 57 points lower against righties.
Ausmus is sensitive to the idea that players like to develop a routine — but he also reserves the right to be flexible with the batting order throughout the season.
“It’s a performance-based game, so you might have to adjust,” Ausmus said. “Everyday players generally . . . they like to see their name in that same spot, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be adjustments.”
For Ausmus, there’s no rush to make any long-term decisions about the lineup. Spring training is a time to experiment — and also to try combinations that would probably never see the light of day during the regular season. For example, Ausmus says he might hit Martinez leadoff at some point. Martinez is Detroit’s designated hitter, but it’s possible he might go back behind the plate and catch a bit during the spring.
“If Victor Martinez is going to catch at some point, you may see Victor hit leadoff because I don’t want him catching too many innings the first time he’s out there, but I want him to get a couple at-bats,” Ausmus said. “You may see Victor hit leadoff or second, just because we want to get the at-bats in a short amount of time.”
As for Jackson, he doesn’t sound anxious for any clarification on where he’ll hit this year. He just wants to be in the lineup.
“I think anybody on this team, honestly, can hit anywhere,” he said. “We’re all capable of doing pretty much anything that we’re called upon to do.”