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Tigers' outfield adjusting with Jackson gone

Davis has taken over center-field role, but transition hasn't been completely smooth @beckjason

MINNEAPOLIS -- Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer is a good judge of his pitches, and he is a fairly good judge of what will happen when they fly off the bat. He was hopeful, maybe cautiously confident, that Trevor Plouffe's drive to left-center field with two outs and two on in the fifth inning on Sunday was going to stay in the confines of Target Field. But like he has for years, he looked at his center fielder to make sure.

"I knew [Plouffe] got it, but I didn't know if he was going to be able to put it in the 'pen," Scherzer said afterward. "As soon as I saw Rajai [Davis] start to pull up a little bit, I knew he had it."

The path of Davis is not an exact science to judge the flight of a ball. It's not always the direct path, and as the last few weeks have shown, it can be curvy. In this case, however, his path was sure. Not only did Davis read the ball off the bat, he anticipated the ball before Scherzer threw the pitch.

"[Plouffe's] been taking really good swings," Davis said afterward. "And it felt like if [Scherzer were to pitch him] inside, he's got the bat speed to get the head out. So I actually played deeper on him and kind of anticipated him driving the ball, especially in that situation. Off the bat, I could see it was hit pretty good."

That anticipation was the difference between camping under the ball at the bullpen fence and crashing into the fence on the run. In a four-game series that saw outfielders on both sides barreling into outfield walls -- Davis included -- he made a difficult play look easy. It didn't end up a highlight, but it also didn't end up a game-tying double off the fence.

"It kind of felt like I just glided," Davis said.

It's the kind of play Davis' predecessor, Austin Jackson, made with regularity, which is why pitchers could weigh their fate on a fly ball on Jackson's route. To expect the same from Davis as Jackson isn't fair to Davis.

That's the conundrum since the David Price trade. When Detroit pulled off the deal minutes before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, the bizarre sight of Jackson being pulled off the field mid-inning and replaced by Davis became the highlight. Three weeks later, it's a symbol of the price the Tigers paid.

In building a super rotation for October, Detroit essentially tore down the framework of its outfield defense in midseason. While Jackson's defensive efficiency was often debated -- his metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved had fallen from elite level to negative territory from 2011 to '14 -- his leadership in center was unquestioned.

When asked if the Tigers miss Jackson in center a week ago, Torii Hunter paused.

"Jackson was great," Hunter said. "He's a pure center fielder. He played great for the Tigers for years. Anytime you let an Austin Jackson go, a premier center fielder, good center fielder, yeah, it hurts a little bit. But I think these guys can hold it down."

The rebuild has been without a true center fielder. What was originally a platoon between Davis and Ezequiel Carrera -- who made a sprawling catch at Yankee Stadium but has done little else since -- has become a return for Davis to regular duty in center for the first time since 2011.

At 33 years old, Davis still has the speed to cover center field. The key has been reading and anticipating the ball. When Davis made the move, he said he liked center because he had more room to run. With plays like Sunday, he's trying to temper that.

"I'm an in-betweener," Davis said. "I don't like the balls dropping in front of me, so I play far enough in -- depending on the game situation, who's hitting -- so those don't drop, where I can at least have a shot. But [I don't play] too far in where I can't race back to the wall."

The biggest problem Detroit's outfield has faced without Jackson, though, is playing together. A ball in Pittsburgh two weeks ago fell in between Davis in left and Carrera in center. Another ball last homestand became a Davis error in left.

"I think the biggest thing is that we all communicate, talk to each other, make sure each one knows what we're doing any particular play," Davis said. "We have to communicate. … If it's in the air, you call it. And keep calling it. Just let each other know that you've got it. If I've got it, I'm going to let everyone know."

Said Hunter: "It's getting there, with him and me and J.D. [Martinez] in left. He's starting to get used to it out there, and used to us, what we can do. There's not too many mistakes out there lately. That means it's getting better."

Short term, they have to make it work for the Tigers to win. Long term, center field might be the biggest void that Detroit faces. Top prospect Derek Hill is at least a few years away, and nobody in center at the upper levels of the farm system projects as a regular.

It explains the Tigers' interest in Cuban center fielder Rusney Castillo before he signed with the Red Sox a few days ago. It also explains why team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski doesn't want to discuss the long term in center yet.

"I'm not going to get into next year at this time," Dombrowski said Friday, when asked if center field will be a priority to fill for next season.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

Detroit Tigers, Rajai Davis