Injuries are a part of baseball, they happen. Key players for the Tigers have had injuries in the past and the team was able to overcome them.
On Tuesday, the Detroit Tigers announced that left fielder Andy Dirks will be out three months due to back surgery.
At first, it looks like a pretty big blow to the Tigers, but losing one of your platoon left fielders for roughly the first two months of the season won’t be as detrimental as some would think.
With that said, the Tigers do have a dilemma on their hands. Rajai Davis struggles against right-handed pitching. Over the past three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays (2011-13), Davis’s slash line against right-handers was .232/.269/.329.
To put that in perspective, here is Ryan Raburn‘s slash line against right-handed pitching over the same time period: .228/.281/.389. Remember, the Tigers gave up on Raburn in 2012. For Davis to have the most success, he needs to face left-handers as much as possible.
The Tigers essentially have three options to fill the void left by Dirks:
The Tigers can bite the bullet and go with Don Kelly and Steve Lombardozzi for the first two months. Kelly is the Tigers ultimate utility man. He can play all three outfield positions as well as each corner infield spot. His versatility is the main reason for his presence with the Tigers.
Honestly, Kelly hasn’t been very good for the Tigers. Since 2010, he has accumulated a WAR of 0.6, according to Fangraphs. His only position should be as the Tigers’ fifth outfielder and backup corner infielder.
Lombardozzi was acquired to be the back up middle infielder, but his ability to play the outfield may push him out there more than Brad Ausmus and his staff had planned. Lombardozzi is a switch hitter who has a career .305 OBP against right-handed pitching. He looks like a better platoon option than Kelly would be.
If the Tigers look in-house, the team will either a) make Daniel Fields, Trevor Crowe or Ezequiel Carrera the fifth outfielder and Kelly will platoon with Davis or b) Hernan Perez with make the club as a backup infielder, pushing Lombardozzi out to left for the time being.
Jason Beck, the mlb.com reporter for the Tigers tweeted this about the likelihood of Fields making the big league club:
Ausmus on Daniel Fields as LF option: “I don’t wanna say he’s not a candidate, but he’s probably a notch below just b/c of the development.”
— Jason Beck (@beckjason) March 5, 2014
Trevor Crowe, a non-roster invitee this spring for the Tigers, wasn’t much of a factor for the Houston Astros, the league’s worst team in 2013. If he made the Tigers, it would be the biggest surprise of the spring.
On Wednesday, MCB’s Chris Hannum wrote about having Carrera platoon in left field with Davis. He would be a better option than Kelly would be as he provides more speed and better defense. Carrera has basically been a “AAAA player” the past few years, and doesn’t have much major league experience, but he would be a better option than Fields and Crowe.
Perez seems like the best candidate to receive the roster spot left open by Dirks. Kelly and Lombardozzi would receive the time out in left against righties.
The Tigers could stand pat and scan the wavier wire for players who have been designated for an assignment. Left-handed batters who may not stick with their given club through spring include: Quintin Berry, Sam Fuld, Seth Smith and Travis Snider.
Smith and Snider have a pretty decent shot of making their respective ball clubs, but are still candidates to be moved as well. Snider was previously a first round pick but, the Pirates didn’t invest much in him. Also, Jose Tabata, who received much of the playing time in left field for the Pirates in 2013 because of Snider’s struggles, is signed for 6 years/$15 million. So, Snider could be expendable if the Pirates feel like they could move him.
Berry is trying to hang on in Baltimore, but the former Tiger might be the odd man out. Is Berry –or another non-roster invitee– a better option than what the Tigers have in their organization?
I’d say no, but if the options the Tigers already have in camp start to struggle, Dave Dombrowski could look else ware for two months outfield help.
If the Tigers feel that Dirks has become expendable, either due to injuries or lack of production, they could attempt to pry an outfielder away from another club. One prime candidate here would be the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay.
Jay’s batting average dipped to a career-low .276 in 2013, and the Cardinals acquired defensive stalwart Peter Bourjos in an offseason trade. The trade has Jay trying to find his fit with the Cardinals, who drafted him in the second round of the 2006 draft.
Since 2011, Jay is seventh among all qualified outfielders against RHP with a .300 average. He provides even better numbers than a healthy Dirks would have. Since 2010, Jay has posted a WAR of 9.3, which puts him in the top 50 among qualified outfielders.
Jay can play all outfield positions and give Torii Hunter a rest every once in awhile in right field (he is 38 after all).
Jay was a first-year arbitration player this past offseason and is under team control through the 2016 season. He can provide solid depth and even start in right field in 2015 if Torii Hunter isn’t retained at season’s end when his contract expires.
The right trade could entice the Cardinals to move Jay, but the downside of trading for Jay –or any other competent major league outfielder– would be that the Tigers would have to give up an asset or two from an already depleted farm system.
Two other options that wouldn’t cost as much for the Tigers would be Mike Carp and Matthew Joyce. Carp had a career year in 2013, and the Pirates have already gauged interest in the Red Sox first baseman/left fielder. If the Tigers were to sweep in and acquire Carp, he could also provide some insurance for Miguel Cabrera at first base.
Joyce struggled in 2013, but has hit at least 17 homers in each of the past three season. The Tigers don’t have much regarding power after Miguel Cabrera now that Prince Fielder has been traded. Joyce could receive another shot with his former team and would come at a cheaper price than Jay.
In all likelihood, the Tigers will stick with what they have. So, either Perez or Carrera are the guys to replace Dirks for the time being. Waiting it out is the safest play for the Tigers, who don’t have many other problems with their club.
The Tigers have been all in for about eight years, so a trade for a player like Jay or Joyce wouldn’t be out of the question, but the Tigers have been consistent since the new year about sticking with the guys they have in their organization.
Then again, when it was announced that Victor Martinez would miss the entire 2012 season due to knee surgery, Dombrowski signed Fielder to the regrettable mammoth deal.
Another note: Davis could also fare better against righties in 2014 due to the fact that he won’t be facing those power arms that the AL East division sends out day after day.
Dirks being out doesn’t look like it could really alter the Tigers’ record. Steamer projects Dirks to have 0.9 WAR in 2014. So, even a replacement level player in his spot wouldn’t even cost the Tigers a single win.
Depleting the farm system even further shouldn’t be in the cards for the Tigers, but having a young outfielder under team control through 2016 looks pretty enticing as well.
The Tigers don’t have to make a decision on the matter tomorrow; that is one positive to take away from the timing of the injury. The team can mull their options as camp winds down and decide between the three options. The safest play would be to stay in-house, but the Tigers have gambled on players in the past once one of their own guys went down.