By: Will Burchfield

Al Avila has heard the question all winter long. So when he heard it again earlier this week, he couldn’t help but laugh.

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Who the hell’s going to play centerfield, Al? 

“Well,” he said, after gathering his breath, “we got a lot of candidates. That’ll be one of the interesting things to follow in Spring Training.”

Indeed. The Tigers’ biggest question mark entering the 2017 season can be found at perhaps the most important position on the ball field. Centerfielder Cameron Maybin is gone, traded to the Angels back in November, and the Tigers have yet to identify his replacement.

Here are our top five candidates to win the job.

1. Mikie Mahtook 

Anytime Avila runs through the Tigers’ options in centerfield, he almost always starts with Mahtook.

“We really like Mikie Mathook,” Avila told 97.1 The Ticket earlier this week. “We feel like he still has a lot of potential and upside in his game.”

Mahtook, Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick in 2011, was acquired by Detroit in January after a disappointing sophomore season with the Rays. The Tigers like his ability in centerfield, especially after Maybin hurt the team in this regard in 2016.

“We feel from a defensive perspective Mahtook’s actually better,” Avila said. “If you look at the defensive metrics, the defense was not great (with Maybin) and with Mahtook the defense will be upgraded. That’s one aspect to look at.”

Mahtook arrives in Detroit with glowing references. Both David Chadd, the Tigers’ assistant GM, and Jeff Wetherby, their Tampa-area scout, recommended Mahtook as Maybin’s replacement. That prompted Avila to phone Paul Mainieri, Mahtook’s coach at LSU.

“He basically said that Mahtook may be the most electric player he’s ever had in his program, which is pretty high praise,” Avila said.

Even after hitting just .195 with a .523 OPS over 65 games last season, Mahtook, who hit .295 with a .923 OPS the season prior, feels like the early frontrunner to claim the starting job in center on Opening Day.

2. Anthony Gose 

If the Tigers didn’t believe in Gose, they would have sent him packing many months ago. The fact that they’ve held onto him, even after last year’s disaster, is proof they envision the 26-year-old as part of their future.

Avila, who took a gamble on Gose ahead of the 2015 season, may be his staunchest supporter.

“I believe, personally, he was rushed to the big leagues too quickly with Toronto. With us, obviously he was given a great opportunity and he had a decent year that first year, but last year it kind of all fell apart,” Avila said. “I think sometimes players beat themselves up so much that they’re their own worst enemies, and I think that happened to Anthony Gose.”

Like Mahtook, Gose is an asset in the field.

“His tools are as good as anybody’s in the big leagues — and then some,” said Avila. “He’s got the speed, he’s got a cannon for an arm, if he makes a mistake on a route in centerfield he can outrun that mistake and still catch the ball. He’s got tremendous talent.”

At the plate, the Tigers want to see Gose cut down on his strikeouts and adopt a more contact-oriented approach.

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“Hopefully he takes that to heart because the reason we’re bringing him back to Major League spring training is because we feel that, at his age, he still has the opportunity to reach his potential,” Avila said. “And if he does, or even comes close to that, we’re going to have a real good centerfielder and a good asset to the team so we’re hoping that works out.”

3. Tyler Collins 

Where Mahtook and Gose could win the centerfield job based on their glove work, Collins could win it based on his bat. The issue – for him, anyway – is the Tigers seem willing to sacrifice some offense at that position in the name of better defense.

In that regard, Avila commended Collins for making a change in his offseason routine.

“He came in a lot leaner,” Avila said. “Collins always (had) that football mentality, trying to get bigger and bigger, bigger muscles, trying to hit 400-foot home runs. Now he’s thinking, ‘They’re probably going to want me to play more centerfield.’…He’s coming back with a mentality of being faster and quicker in centerfield, and he still has that natural power from the left-handed side that he can pop one out on any given day.”

For Collins to separate himself from the pack, he’ll likely have to pound the ball in Spring Training. It’s hard to see him stacking up with Mahtook and Gose from a defensive perspective, but if he can outhit them to a greater degree, he may have a chance to steal the starting job.

4. JaCoby Jones

Considering Jones has arguably the highest ceiling of any centerfielder in Detroit’s organization, it might be a surprise to see him this low on the list. But the Tigers feel strongly that the 24-year-old needs more time to develop in the minors.

He only began playing centerfield full-time last year, and even then, he started 37 games at third base between Double-A, Triple-A and the Bigs. What’s more, he still has plenty of work to do at the plate, namely lessening his strikeout rate. The talent is there in spades for Jones, a player as ‘toolsy’ as they come, but he needs some refinement around the edges.

Look for him to start the season in Triple-A. From a longer-term perspective, though, Avila likes the thought of Jones and Mahtook, former teammates at LSU, joining forces in the outfield.

“They’re both tremendous athletes, they both can run, they both have great arms – all great tools – so hopefully we’ll see the fruition of that development with Mahtook and JaCoby. Best case scenario, you’ll have both of them in the outfield at some point in the near future,” Avila said.

5. Mystery Free Agent 

With all due respect to Alex Presley, another in-house candidate to play centerfield, the 31-year-old journeyman doesn’t have the track record or the upside to win the job. But someone on the free agent market might, and Avila hasn’t ruled out the possibility of going in that direction.

Late last month he said, “The winter-slash-spring is not over yet, so there’s still outfielders out there looking for jobs. He reiterated this on Monday, saying, “There still might be something out there that makes sense.”

Pickings are thin at this point, obviously, but one name that might attract the Tigers’ attention is Michael Bourn. The 34-year-old doesn’t pack much pop offensively, but he can be disruptive on the base paths and still plays solid defense in centerfield. And he could be had for cheap.

If Mahtook, Gose and Collins don’t inspire much confidence in Spring Training, and assuming Jones is destined for Triple-A regardless, don’t rule out a last-minute acquisition by Avila.

In all likelihood though, the Tigers will stand pat and enter the 2017 season with what they’ve got.

“I think with Mahtook, Collins, Anthony Gose, JaCoby Jones, that combination of players should give us good defense in centerfield and enough offensive production,” Avila said. “We feel good about the depth we have.”

Considering the talent elsewhere on the roster, especially at the two corner outfield spots, Avila isn’t fretting over the lingering question mark in center.

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“I think we’ll be fine there,” he said.