With offense retooled, Tigers eye the top

With offense retooled, Tigers eye the top

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Watch Austin Jackson turn second base on his way for a triple, or simply going from first to third, and it's easy to see why the Tigers insisted on getting this rookie talent in a return package if they were going to trade Curtis Granderson.

But that's not the quickness by which the Tigers are exclusively going to judge him; they want to see how quickly he can fit in as a Major League hitter, and how quickly he and Johnny Damon can spark the Tigers' offense from the top.

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Watch Damon poke a little opposite-field line drive into left field, or pull a ground ball through the right side for a single as Jackson speeds by, and it becomes apparent why the Tigers saw him more as a natural fill for the second spot in the order than the leadoff role. His offensive versatility gives Detroit its best option for replacing all that Placido Polanco contributed from the two hole.

Damon wasn't in the Tigers' original plans when the offseason began, but he's the kind of hitter the Tigers needed in some form or another. For a club that relied so much on home run power the past two seasons, Jackson and Damon represent a good part of what has the chance to be a more diversified offense.

They might not go crazy on the basepaths, but they probably won't be sitting around waiting for the three-run homer, either. If they're going to realistically contend for the American League Central title again, they can't afford to.

"To me, it's easier to get a base hit than get a home run," said Carlos Guillen, whose health looms as a major factor in the lineup batting behind MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera.

"It's a new year. In this game, it's all about adjustments."

Nowhere did the Tigers need more adjustments than at the plate. A team that was once projected to score 900 runs or more in 2008 added a couple defensively oriented players last year and dropped to 743 runs scored, 78 runs fewer than in 2008 and 38 under the league average, ranking it 10th in the AL.

What hurt more was that the Tigers fell one run short of putting away the Twins in the AL tiebreaker before extra innings last October, despite plenty of chances.

The Tigers went 17-36 last year in games when they didn't homer, according to Bill James Online. By contrast, the Twins went 28-32. The White Sox went 16-40 and decided to retool their offense. Detroit's makeover isn't nearly as drastic, but it's no less important.

Detroit Tigers
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 CF Austin Jackson
2 LF Johnny Damon
3 RF Magglio Ordonez
4 1B Miguel Cabrera
5 DH Carlos Guillen
6 3B Brandon Inge
7 C Gerald Laird
8 2B Scott Sizemore
9 SS Adam Everett
Projected rotation
1 RHP Justin Verlander
2 RHP Rick Porcello
3 RHP Max Scherzer
4 RHP Jeremy Bonderman
5 LHP Dontrelle Willis
Projected bullpen
CL RHP Jose Valverde
SU RHP Ryan Perry
SU RHP Joel Zumaya
MI LHP Phil Coke
MI LHP Fu-Te Ni
MI RHP Eddie Bonine
MI LHP Brad Thomas
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

According to baseball-reference.com, 2.9 percent of the Tigers' plate appearances went for home runs, about the same as the league average. However, just 7.4 percent of their plate appearances went for extra-base hits, well below the 8.0 percent league average. It wasn't just a matter of the drop in Granderson's triples, but also Magglio Ordonez's drop in doubles, or the Tigers missing Guillen.

Nor did the Tigers necessarily run the bases well. About thirty percent of Detroit baserunners scored last year, just below the 31-percent league average. Similarly, baseball-reference.com ranks the Tigers below the league average in the percentage of times a baserunner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double.

That said, manager Jim Leyland put runners in motion a lot -- partly to try to move runners into position to score, partly to get hitters to focus on putting the ball in play. With Damon, Jackson and Scott Sizemore, this team has the potential to be better geared for that.

"Before it's all said and done, we should have a little more versatility," Leyland said. "A lot of that depends on how the young kids perform."

While scouts don't consider Jackson a burner in terms of pure speed, his Spring Training performance has shown him to be an instinctive, aggressive baserunner.

"That's part of my game," Jackson said earlier this spring. "That's definitely going to be something that I'm going to have to bring to the table every day."

Though Damon's stolen-base totals dropped last year, he was efficient when he stole, going 12-for-12. He also took extra bases on singles and doubles in more than half of his opportunities.

Part of the improvement, too, will come from within. Leyland has wanted to make is to improve his club's plate discipline in run-scoring situations. He has had hitters step to the plate in plate appearances with a two-strike approach for the entire at-bat, looking for shortened swings and better emphasis on contact.

A productive Ordonez makes a major difference, and his hitting this spring has raised hopes for a bounce-back season. That doesn't mean he'll come anywhere near his old home run totals, but if he can line balls deeper into the gap and turn singles into doubles, it should have a similar impact in his RBI column.

"If Magglio hits .320 and knocks in 100 runs, that's great for me," Leyland said.

Part of that comes from Ordonez hitting. Part comes from Jackson and Damon getting on base and into scoring position. The end result, the Tigers hope, is a more diversified offense that can produce runs on good days and bad.

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