Commentary: New season poses challenges to Tigers despite optimism

It’s hard not to succumb to hyperbole early in the baseball season, but with just a few games in the books and Tigers outfielder Brennan Boesch hitting .364 at the time of this writing, I reserve the right to hold off on small, sample-size conclusions until the end of April at the earliest.

Instead of championing “First Half Hero” Boesch and catcher Alex Avila for scalding hot starts in about 20 at-bats apiece, I’d like to focus on some things I’ve seen from the Tigers that perhaps don’t bode well for their division title hopes:

*1. Regression at the top of the order. *

Against right-handed pitching, the top two hitters in the Tigers batting order are outfielder Austin Jackson, who leads the team with 12 strikeouts, and second basemen Will Rhymes. These players were able to generate good results last year as rookies; Jackson hit .293 in 151 games, and Rhymes led the Tigers in starts at second base and hit .304.

Both are struggling out of the gate this year; Jackson is 6-for-34 with a double and a home run, while Rhymes is 5-for-25 without an extra-base hit.

There is reason to believe both players were fortunate to hit for such high averages last year, as Jackson led the American League with a .396 batting average on balls in play and Rhymes’ BABIP was .326.

Jackson’s problem with strikeouts doesn’t seem to have gone away: He struck out 170 times last year. In 213 plate appearances last year, Rhymes struck out just 16 times. So far this year, he’s struck out five times in 29 trips to the plate.

Before the year, I thought both of these guys were candidates to take a step back from their 2010 production, and so far that’s what it looks like.

*2. Jim Leyland’s Managing Madness. *

I already spent an entire column on the mistake the skipper made sending Scott Sizemore to Triple-A Toledo. It’s been just a week, but Sizemore is 6-for-9 with a home run in the minors.

At the big-league level, Leyland has just made a small handful of head-scratching decisions so far.

The worst was electing to hit the versatile Don Kelly sixth in the batting order against Baltimore last week. Kelly has never been a productive offensive player, yet Leyland sent him to the plate 251 times last year despite his abysmal .272 on-base percentage.

Leyland needs to remember Kelly is a utility player and should be kept around like a fire extinguisher: Only break glass if necessary.

3. Rick Porcello being the “key” to the season is not necessarily a good thing.

Everyone loves to call Porcello the key to the season, but why? He’s only 22, but it already seems like he is what he is. Porcello’s primary offering is a low-90’s sinker and through his first two full seasons in the big leagues, he’s basically had a 4.00 ERA with less than five strikeouts per nine innings.
That’s OK, it’s not going to hurt the team, but until Porcello misses more bats, there’s no reason to continue to tout him as the “key” to the Tigers’ path to October.  
4. The Chicago White Sox.

The Tigers haven’t faced either of their division rivals yet – the other being the Minnesota Twins – but just looking at the White Sox roster, it appears they will be the ones at the finish line with the flag waving.

There doesn’t look to be much the Sox can’t do. They can hit, pitch and field, but more than that, they appear to have a big advantage on the Tigers up-the-middle.

The double-play combo of Alexi Ramirez and Gordon Beckham will supply a lot more power than Jhonny Peralta and Rhymes. In center, they have perennial 20-home-run guy Alex Rios and the Tigers have Jackson, who might not get to 20 homers in three seasons.

It will be an uphill battle for the Tigers to take down the Sox, but then again, what’s the point of doing anything that isn’t hard?

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