By Will Burchfield
Looking ahead to the 2017 season, the Tigers’ biggest question mark exists in center field.
And according to their GM, the solution remains unclear.
“Right now, there is no clear-cut answer for center field. I would say it’s a work in progress,” Avila told ‘Tiger Talk’ on 97.1 The Ticket on Wednesday night.
The Tigers traded last year’s center fielder Cameron Maybin in November and have yet to identify his replacement. There are some intriguing names on the free agent market – Austin Jackson and Michael Bourn, in particular – but Avila suggested the team might prefer to draw from within.
“I have a long list of all the minor league and major league free agent players that are still available and if you look at what you’re going to get in production, you have to evaluate that compared to what you already have in-house,” Avila said. “In-house you have (Tyler) Collins, (Anthony) Gose, (Alex) Presley and JaCoby Jones.”
Jones, 24, is the most promising player among them, but he doesn’t appear ready to assume an everyday role with the big-league club. In particular, his offensive game leaves much to be desired.
“I would say that a guy like JaCoby Jones is going to be a really good defensive player. He’s very athletic, he can run, he’s got a very good arm,” Avila said. “The question is, will he hit enough? And not so much will he hit enough, but will he hit enough to stay above water where you don’t drown the guy.
“That’s a question that could be answered in spring turning. And maybe we don’t have to answer that in spring training because maybe something else happens between now and the end of spring training. So that’s still a work in progress.”
Jones appeared in 13 games for the Tigers toward the end of the last season, going 6/28 (.214) with three doubles and three runs scored. His 12 strikeouts underscored his most glaring issue at the plate.
After Jones, it sounds like Avila may have the most hope in Gose. That’s somewhat of a surprise, given Gose’s freefall during the 2016 season and his unceremonious demotion to Double-A Erie after getting into a fight with Triple-A Toledo manager Lloyd McClendon and skipping the team’s next game.
But the Tigers traded for Gose ahead of the 2015 season hoping he’d become their center fielder of the future, and they’re not giving up on him yet.
“We have kept Gose this whole time because we feel Anthony Gose is a very good center fielder, he can play good defense,” Avila explained. “We’ve actually had a couple of teams that have had interest in him because they feel like he’s a good outfielder. So we wanted to keep him around and have him in the mix unless something happens, of course, down the road.”
As for Collins and Presley, neither player is a natural center fielder. Collins played in 56 games for the Tigers last season, making 22 starts in center, while Presley appeared in just 3 games, starting in center twice. They were forced into action largely because Maybin had a hard time staying healthy.
In fact, things were so erratic in centerfield that the Tigers even asked left fielder Justin Upton to play the position on occasion.
“It was kind of a revolving door for some parts of the season,” Avila said. “This year may or may not be the same. I don’t know yet because, like I said, it’s still a work in progress.”
In addition to Jackson and Bourn, the free agent market is populated by the likes of Peter Bourjos, Desmond Jennings and Gregor Blanco. Avila isn’t exactly racing to sign any of them.
“I would say we have some degree of interest, but at this point not to the degree that we’re going to jump right in and do something with that,” he said. “So thats where it stands right now in center field.”