Around the Horn: Outfielders
Ordonez, Granderson Tigers' anchors; left open to options
The following is the fourth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Outfielders.
DETROIT -- Magglio Ordonez became an icon in 2006 with his walk-off home run that sent the Tigers to the World Series. He became a batting champ last year, a national hero upon his return home to his native Venezuela and began building a legacy beyond the playing field with a scholarship fund this winter. He's one of those rare athletes who can be recognized with just one name, and at this point might be recognizable by his hair.
It's no longer a comeback for him. Three seasons after knee injuries put his career in question, he's beyond where he was before surgery, maybe beyond where he could've imagined when he signed with the Tigers. But he's still not satisfied.
"No," Ordonez said at TigerFest earlier this month. "I need a World Series ring. That's why we're here. I already won a batting title."
That, in a nutshell, is how Detroit's two star outfielders can top last year.
While no Tiger had won a batting title since 1961 until Ordonez, Curtis Granderson pulled off an offensive feat only two other players in Major League history had reached in a season. As the Tigers pull in more offensive help to bolster what was already one of baseball's most dangerous lineups, the question that gets lost is what these two stars can do for an encore.
"We're going to have to do our jobs," Ordonez said of his club. "I'm not going to get comfortable. Neither are my teammates."
Four years ago, Detroit's offense was centered around the infield. In 2007, no pair of outfield teammates in the Majors produced more runs, hits and doubles than Granderson and Ordonez, and no teammates at any position produced more total bases. Ordonez and Granderson became the first pair of Tigers to both finish among the top 10 in American League MVP voting since Detroit's World Series championship team of 1984, and were the first pair of Tigers outfielders to crack the top 10 together since Rocky Colavito and Al Kaline placed eighth and ninth in 1961.
Now comes the follow-up season, and the challenges are different.
Ordonez, who has regained his younger form and then some over the last two seasons after injuries stalled his career in 2004 and '05, must show that his health will continue to be on his side after he turns 34 years old next week. Granderson, whose 2007 numbers were a career-defining leap above his encouraging but streaky '06 performance, will try to show he can maintain the balance of aggressiveness and efficiency that worked so well for him last year.
Only Wade Boggs and Nomar Garciaparra have repeated in the AL in the 30 years since Rod Carew's back-to-back batting crowns, while Tony Gwynn and Larry Walker are the only repeat winners in the National League in that same span. Both Gwynn and Walker were in their early to mid-30s when they repeated.
History has shown, however, that Ordonez is only as old as he feels. In his first season as a Tiger in 2005, he arguably looked older than his actual age thanks to knee surgeries and hernia surgery in the span of less than 12 months. He still topped .300 that year, but he didn't have the same strength to lash those hits into extra bases.
In each year since, Ordonez has felt healthier, and that renewed strength in his legs and lower body have shown. If he has that strength, he could get many of those same numbers.
"I feel great. I feel good," Ordonez said. "I feel like last year. I'm healthy. That's the most important thing."
Amazingly, he could also have even better support around him. As important as it was for manager Jim Leyland to keep Carlos Guillen in the fifth spot after cleanup man Ordonez, he can top that this year with a healthy Gary Sheffield and the newly acquired Miguel Cabrera. One is expected to bat in front of Ordonez, the other behind him.
Ordonez batted a Major League-best .429 with runners in scoring position, best by a Major League hitter since Manny Ramirez in 2001. He hasn't hit lower than .309 in those situations since his rookie season of 1997. Give him runners to drive in, and history suggests he can get the hit. The way Leyland arranges the order, in part, will help assure that Ordonez gets the pitches in the strike zone that he needs.
It's Granderson's job to get into those scoring-position situations, if somebody doesn't drive him in before Ordonez steps to the plate. Few leadoff men did their job as well as Granderson last year.
Batting average doesn't adequately describe it, though Granderson's .302 clip ranked fourth among Major League leadoff men last year. Only Florida phenom Hanley Ramirez (.984) posted a higher on-base plus slugging percentage atop a batting order than Granderson's .913. AL All-Star Grady Sizemore (79) and NL MVP Jimmy Rollins (94) were the only leadoff men with more RBIs than Granderson's 74, and Rollins (380) was the only one with more total bases than Granderson's 338.
The improvement was in part a tag-team instructional effort. While hitting coach Lloyd McClendon worked with Granderson on line drives to all fields and what to expect from pitchers in a given situation, first-base coach Andy Van Slyke worked on Granderson's aggressiveness, teaching him to think extra bases immediately out of the batter's box.
Not only was Granderson 26-for-27 in stolen-base attempts, but he wasn't thrown out at all trying to advance on the basepaths. His mere four outs on the bases, according to the Bill James Handbook, all came from being doubled off. His 34 manufactured runs, according to the same book, ranked fourth in the American League.
Granderson could yet blossom into a hitter better suited for batting lower in the order, but given the lineup the Tigers have, he's their best weapon at the top for the foreseeable future. How to get the most offense out of a potential two- or three-man timeshare in left field will be a bigger project for Leyland.
By bringing in Jacque Jones from the Cubs for Omar Infante, the Tigers added a left-handed bat to a lineup that was leaning heavily right-handed with Sean Casey out. If Jones can build on his second half in Chicago, he won't be in the lineup simply for being left-handed.
Jones batted .332 after the All-Star break with 46 RBIs and an .832 OPS over 238 at-bats, helping fuel the Cubs' late charge to the postseason. However, his power dropoff was dramatic, from 74 home runs over his previous three seasons to just five last year, despite one of his best seasons for doubles. If Marcus Thames is around to share time in left, that could be a bigger help.
Thames homered 18 times over just 269 at-bats last year, but hit just .242 with 72 strikeouts. In that sense, and the lefty-righty splits, he complements Jones well. Add in Ryan Raburn, who hit his way into a utility role over the second half last year, and return Timo Perez as a non-roster invitee, and Detroit has no shortage of options in left.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.