Andy Dirks‘ back injury isn’t really going to inspire a lot of water cooler chatter or moaning and groaning about the Tigers’ chances in 2013. He didn’t have a very good year last year at the plate and fans memories are short. Objectively, we were expecting about 2 wins from the guy – despite the fact that he wouldn’t start against lefties – and he’s probably going to miss a good 1/3 of the season. That’s something in the neighborhood of 0.7 lost wins – assuming he’s replaced with a replacement level player. Not trivial, exactly, particularly if the Tigers do wind up in a tight race.
Dombrowski has declared that he’s almost certain to be replaced from within, so do we have any options better than replacement level? If we simply expand Rajai Davis‘ role Davis has already shown himself to be a below-replacement-level player overall against right-handed pitching. Even left-handed replacement level filler is going to be better than Davis’ .228/.273/.321 line against righties in 2013. Don Kelly has played in 475 games over his career, mostly with Detroit, and accumulated all of 0.4 fWAR over that span. What contributions Kelly makes have mainly come in the field, though he’s speedy and could conceivably wreak more havoc on the basepaths than he was allowed to do under the Leyland regime. We should consider Kelly to be a wholly known quantity only marginally better than replacement level even if used in an “optimal” limited role. Still better than Davis, but only replacing presumably 0.1 of the lost 0.7 Dirks wins.
For all intents and purposes that wraps up the “known quantities”, what else the Tigers have to fall back on have to be considered “unknown quantities” – guys with little in the way of a bona fide track record but youth on their side. Steve Lombardozzi is one potential option HOWEVER, Lombardozzi at this point is the Tigers only legitimate infield reserve. The writing is on the wall that Lombo may be needed to get some extensive PT at short and it might not even be the best of ideas to play him much in the outfield in the spring, while what Ausmus should be most concerned about is evaluating his defensive capabilities at short. And… Lombardozzi has been little better than Kelly at the plate over his relatively short major league career, doesn’t potentially bring the same kind of outfield glove to the equation that Kelly does and as a switch hitter hasn’t shown the same kind of massive splits that Kelly has to split time with Davis. If Lombo is a better hitter than he has thus far appeared to be (and we hope this is the case) in the majors, it still might not be the case that he’d be best used in the outfield and there’s an excellent chance that he’d be worse than Kelly in the role regardless.
Can anyone simply do BETTER than Kelly? We’d like to hope so, but the list of minor leaguers knocking on the door is short. Daniel Fields had a good enough year in AA that a lot of folks would like to consider him, but I’d have to caution against it. The good numbers in 2013 came due to a very high BABIP rather than due to the improvements in Ks that Fields needs to make to succeed in the higher minors much less in the big leagues. Spring Training tends to lead managers to make foolish decisions based on very small sample size stats, so it’s not all that unlikely that Fields’ liners find holes for a couple of weeks and he heads north. If he does, I’d personally expect a strikeout rate well north of 30% and an OPS closer to .500 than to .600. His Oliver projection is a little more generous – a .635 OPS and -0.3 WAR. Fields has a lot to prove in AAA in 2014 before we should consider him for a major league roster spot.
Ezequiel Carrera – a non-roster invitee that the Tigers stand to lose if they don’t add him (though you never know, maybe he could be stored in Toledo) could be a more interesting choice. Carrera fits into more of the Davis/Kelly mold as opposed to Fields. No one has ever imagined Carrera as a five-tool player, but what he has drawn attention for (getting mentions from BA, at least, as being among the best in various organizations in these respects) is speed, defense and strike zone discipline. In theory, Don Kelly is also capable of all of these things – though as a major leaguer he seemed to stop trying to take a walk and to swing for the fences instead. What’s more, Carrera has shown not only speed but also aggressiveness on the basepaths (with 43 steals in 105 games in AAA last year). That Oliver prediction that gives Daniel Fields negative 0.3 WAR (and Kelly negative 0.1) gives Carrera 1.6 – and it’s basically the same as the “Davenport Translation” of all of his work to this point (adjusting for league, age, etc…) as well. That comes despite predicting an OPS of only .661, not all that terribly much better than Fields. Why the big difference? Carrera would be expected to play great D and the forecast assumes a tougher defensive position (center), he’d also be assumed to steal a lot of bases (36) AND almost all of the difference between Fields and Carrera offensively would come on the more-important OBP side, due to a much lower strikeout rate. It’s a pity that this roster battle is likely to be won by the hot hand, based on scouting, tools and stats, I’m much more interested in what Carrera could do splitting with Davis than the rest.