Gerald Laird might have been the best catcher in baseball in 2009—defensively.
But Detroit's catcher forgot to pack his bat when he left Spring Training.
His seventh campaign was his most disappointing at the plate. In 413 at-bats, Laird limped to a .225 batting average, four homers, and 33 runs batted in, all while providing top-notch defense. With an on-base percentage well-below .300 (.278), he was a major blockage in Detroit's light-hitting bottom of the order.
So the Tigers' backstop worked endlessly in the offseason to improve the weak point in his game.
Addressing Laird's mechanics, Tigers' hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said, "We're trying to get him to a consistent launching position on every swing. We need to get him off his back side on swings. He was a spinner and needs a strong front side."
Laird's statistics prove he is meeting the ball in a more favorable position this spring (7-for-29, .269). After altering his hand placement, he has been driving the ball and plating runners with the consistency Tigers' manager Jim Leyland expects. As of March 20th, he has slugged two homers and driven in nine.
"Laird is going to hit better", said Leyland. "He put a lot of pressure on himself last year, making working with the pitchers No. 1. I think he's somewhere in the .260 range. That's a significant jump, and with some more RBIs."
An effective lower-order regular would likely have spared Detroit a 163rd game last year, but with no preseason runaway favorite to win the AL Central, an added dose of runs could boost the Tigers into this postseason. Inject a .260 bat into the butt of the lineup and Detroit may score 30 or 40 more runs throughout the course of a full season.
It would also connect the end of the lineup with the fruitful Ordonez-Cabrera-Guillen-Inge foursome projected to occupy the three through six spots.
Detroit thirsts for a contact hitter able to knock in those who the big bats strand. If 2009 taught Tigers fans anything, it was runners left on base for the final three hitters would probably be left hanging.
With no major acquisitions impacting the lower part of the order, in-house upgrades are required this year.
Along with winter batting practice, another factor may lead to increased production from Laird. Young backup Alex Avila is expected to be Detroit's No. 2 catcher. If Avila grows into the role as well as expected, he will lighten the load on the starter's shoulders.
Last season, Laird started the vast majority of games after backup Matt Treanor's April injury left the Tigers void of an experienced option. He played 135 games, a heavy physical sacrifice for any catcher.
If Avila can limit Laird's number of appearances to 120 or fewer, Detroit would be more suitably equipped at baseball's most physically and mentally commanding position. The reduced strain should allow for a better rested, more offensively productive Laird.
In his career, the 30-year-old has hit .247 in 1,638 at-bats, topping out at .296 in 2006. Marks of inconsistency suggest it is too late for him turn into a Silver Slugger, but Laird, an excellent pitching staff manager and running game disabler, can assist a lineup at a Major League level.
Now Detroit fans must wait to see if McClendon's offseason dissection will pay dividends.