This isn’t a big-money deal – just a minor-league free agent signing with an invite to spring training. Not making waves. It is at least minor news (pun intended) in and of itself, but what makes it interesting is the seemingly poor fit.
Kevin Russo is a 28-year-old utility infielder from the Yankees organization, he got a cup of coffee with them in 2010 and stunk his way back to AAA. He has primarily played second and third as a minor leaguer – with only 16 starts at short in seven seasons. He’s also a right-handed batter and supposedly a pretty slick fielder at second and third with a batting profile that leans toward OBP and too few steals to add much value with his legs.
Now here’s the thing: the Tigers second baseman, shortstop and third baseman are all right-handed already. The Tigers still have Ramon Santiago as an infield reserve for one more year – and he’s a switch-hitter. The final infielder that we would have expected to make the opening day roster would be Danny Worth – who is also right-handed and would probably be considered a more capable hand at short than Russo. There isn’t any understandable reason to go after an infield reserve that doesn’t offer something that Danny Worth doesn’t and Russo looks basically like a Danny Worth that doesn’t play short. At first when I heard about this I wondered if the Tigers were actually looking for a replacement for Ramon Santiago on the roster – since he certainly didn’t do much for them last year. Still – if they were looking to do that why a righty who can’t play short?
No, I think the story here is that Kevin Russo is being viewed as an outfielder who can also play infield positions (like Don Kelly) rather than potentially the last infielder on the bench. He did at least start 50 games in the outfield (playing all three positions) in AAA last year. Dombrowski is believed to be on the lookout for cheap platoon options to go along with Andy Dirks in left field and Kevin Russo is probably going to get a shot at being that guy. His splits last year were extreme – a .922 OPS against lefties and a .619 OPS against righties over 101 total games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre which at least suggests that he might be a good candidate for that kind of a role. One issue for me would be that grabbing a bunch of options and letting them duke it out in spring training isn’t going to be a very viable option when you’re looking for the weak side of a platoon – who cares how he fares against righties in spring training? I’d rather see a shoo-in signed to a major league deal that has to play himself out of the job in spring training than a bunch of Russos. On the other hand, if Tigers’ management considers it important that their fifth outfielder has more positional flexibility than somebody like Ben Guez Russo might work.