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Leadoff spot Tigers' top priority

Leadoff spot Tigers' top priority

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DETROIT -- The Tigers' 2010 season will begin around 4:10 p.m. ET on April 5 with somebody stepping into the batter's box against defending American League Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.

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Who that batter will be, nobody can say right now -- not the Tigers, not fans, not even the guys involved. Nobody knows.

Detroit's leadoff hitter could be a former Georgia Tech guard recruit getting his first official Major League plate appearance. Or it could be a 36-year-old veteran who isn't on the team yet. Or maybe it could be one of the many established Tigers who have hit elsewhere in the order in previous years while Curtis Granderson handled the top spot.

As team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski readily points out, somebody has to lead off the game for them. He just doesn't know who it's going to be yet. That's going to be one of the many decisions the Tigers will have to make in Spring Training, but it could be the most scrutinized choice they face.

"That's going to be a big one," manager Jim Leyland said at baseball's Winter Meetings, after the Tigers traded Granderson to the Yankees. "I don't have any clue right now who I would lead off. I have no idea to be honest with you. We're going to have to be a little creative."

Two months later, there still isn't a set answer. Leyland has a plan to give rookie center fielder Austin Jackson the first shot at the top spot to begin the Spring Training schedule, but he isn't indicating anything yet for Opening Day. Nor does he know who the second hitter will be.

"I don't know who's going to be the leadoff guy Opening Day. I would like it to be [Jackson]," Leyland said. "But that doesn't mean I know who it's going to be."

For Leyland, long known for scribbling out batting orders in the offseason, that means something. But it also means something to the Tigers offense as a whole.

It deals with more than simply finding somebody to fill a role. It goes into the notion of finding production from the top of the order -- not just at leadoff, but in the open second spot in the lineup -- and how the Tigers can scrounge more runs out of an offense that generally proved disappointing in 2009.

In that sense, the leadoff man is a figurehead. But he's also a catalyst. In Detroit's case, the offense needs a spark.

For all the scrutiny over Granderson's trade and his situational struggles last year, he was still an experienced leadoff man. He wasn't the prototypical leadoff man, Leyland and Dombrowski said last month, but he was still the most qualified leadoff hitter they had. Until and unless the Tigers sign Johnny Damon, and it's believed they are now interested at the right price, they arguably don't have anyone as qualified right now.

That doesn't mean they don't have anyone capable of handling it. On the contrary, Jackson's combination of speed, baserunning acumen and extra-base power make him potentially an ideal fit. But Jackson, like fellow rookie Scott Sizemore, doesn't have the experience to go with the tools. Jackson hasn't batted leadoff in the Minor Leagues since A ball in 2006, and he actually batted third for part of last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as Yankees officials tried to spur his development as a run producer.

At this point, there are no perfect solutions. Leyland and other club officials have to figure out who provides the most workable solution without sacrificing the rest of the order. Carlos Guillen arguably has enough plate discipline and baserunning aggressiveness to move up, but Leyland would prefer to have Guillen in the middle of the order behind Miguel Cabrera. Move him out of that spot, and not only do the Tigers arguably not have a logical fit for the fifth spot, they definitely don't have a left-handed bat for it. How much of a difference does it really make is up for interpretation. After all, as Granderson would point out, the leadoff man is only guaranteed to lead off one inning per game. Still, whatever the criteria, there's a value.

Logically, the more often the leadoff man reaches base, the more RBI opportunities for the hitters after him. Though Cabrera batted .296 with a .906 OPS with runners in scoring position, he ended up with his lowest RBI total in six full seasons as a pro. Likewise, Ordonez hit .291 with runners in scoring position, but only did so for a .788 OPS in part because of his lower extra-base hit total. Ordonez had his fewest plate appearances with runners in scoring position in any healthy season in his Major League career. Cabrera had his fewest scoring-position opportunities since 2006.

That said, Granderson's career-high 30 home runs meant he was driving in himself quite a bit. It also meant Detroit had almost as high of an OPS from the first spot in the order (.780) as the third (.786), despite a batting average and on-base percentage that were both about 30 points lower.

Thirty homers out of a leadoff hitter almost surely won't happen again for a long time, let alone this year, meaning the Tigers need some OBP there. How they get there, and how Leyland measures Spring Training at-bats to determine a good fit, is arguably the biggest question of Spring Training.

Leyland's willingness to lead off with Granderson in 2006 showed he isn't afraid to put a rookie in a key situation. Leyland points out that he was the obvious choice then. Jackson could yet be that pick again if Damon doesn't end up in Detroit.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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