The Dirks Dilemma

At some point this season, Detroit fans have called for the heads of all three outfield starters: Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter.

Other times, those shouting expletives in June were shouting approval in July.

All three players have looked valuable to the Tigers at some point during the first four months of the season, and while their sporadic play may have satiated fans, Brad Ausmus may not be convinced.

The starters in the outfield know well that Detroit has weapons on their entire roster, including on the bench. Detroit is blessed and cursed with having a surplus of quality players on their team, a couple notables without spots on the field. Jackson, Hunter and Davis know that if someone’s play starts to slip, there are replacements waiting to take their spots.

The dilemma arrives in the names of DL-ridden Andy Dirks and phenom J. D. Martinez. Both claim left field as their primary position, and both have proved valuable to Detroit (albeit in different years; Dirks has yet to meet a batter’s box in 2014). Dirks was close to an everyday player in 2013, playing in 131 games and recording a respectable .256 average. Down from 2012’s .322 average, but solid enough to his keep his position in the field. This year will be different for Dirks. The acquisition of J. D. Martinez combined with a recovering back may have Dirks finding a long-term home in Toledo.

Option No. 2 (and quickly becoming No. 1) is J. D. Martinez. Bloggers have salivated over the new Martinez for weeks. Analyzing his stats are pointless: .346 average, 13 homers and 43 RBIs in two months speak for themselves. Detroit continues to anticipate the drop-off of the ex-Astro, but J. D. Martinez has only excelled after taking over the cleanup spot for an injured Victor Martinez. However, J. D. Martinez’s home is in left field, and Victor Martinez’s spot will be designated hitter as long as he can stand on his two feet. J. D.Martinez will start clawing back into the starting lineup, and he has earned every inning of work.

Assuming Ausmus picks J. D. Martinez for his outfielder (and he would be run out of Detroit if a .346 hitter was riding the bench), that leaves two open spots for four outfielders. Who loses a leading role?

Until July, Hunter’s only redeeming quality was his smile. The 38-year-old batted a pathetic .194 in June, accumulating only four extra base hits for the month. His season average dropped from a .276 to a .252, and it looked like Torii was ready to hang up the cleats with Cooperstown just out of reach. However, the last 15 days in July has been a different player in right field. He is batting .375 in July with three homers and just three strikeouts. Hunter has knocked in more RBI’s in July (14) than in all of June (nine), playing 11 less games. Patience at the plate (and maybe pressure in the dugout) turned him into a powerhouse going into the all-star break. He still may be first on the chopping block, but Hunter has shown he will not leave the lineup without a fight.

Following right in Hunter’s dugout shadow is Jackson. Fan reaction to Jackson runs along the lines of ‘last to praise, first to haze.’ Although batting .333 in July, many push Jackson out of the outfield, moving Davis to center and placing J. D.Martinez in left. Jackson is second in the team in strikeouts and third-last in OBP of all starters, behind only Nick Castellanos and, to his benefit, Hunter. Jackson’s presence in the field cannot be understated. Center has been his position since 2010, and his speed coupled with Davis’ rockets for legs in left allows Jackson to reach nearly every ball hit in the air. Plus, he left his feet to make a diving catch against Oakland. Signs of a new Jackson?!

Finally, Davis finds himself in the most coveted position in Comerica right now. Luckily for him, he also finds himself in the best position to keep his job. Batting a solid .438 in July wins him the batting title amongst his cohorts in the outfield. Boasting a walk-off grand slam against a surging Athletics team has earned Davis staying power and celebrity status in Detroit for a while. The aforementioned speed benefits on defense and offense and, while Davis has not utilized the green light as often in June and July, is still a threat to move 180 feet himself every time he reaches first. Expect Davis’s face to stay in the field, barring an uncharacteristic drop off.

If this was all too much to digest, the short version can be explained as such: do not be surprised to see a completely different outfield coming out of the recent all-star break. A J. D.Martinez left, Davis center, Dirks right would not be out of the question. While Dirks may not be ready for Cleveland after the nationwide rest, his presence will be another weapon for Ausmus in the dugout. This may be the skipper’s first big decision as manager. Giving Hunter a break may be unpopular, but the best option for Detroit’s future.

Richie Cozzolino is co-host of Tiger Talk for Impact Sports.