Clete, Kelly Battle for Final Roster Spot


I have spent a great deal of time breaking down the favorites to make the Tigers’ 12-man pitching staff, but I’m going to put that struggle aside today and look at the positional players for a moment. Kurt had an excellent write-up on this topic at BYB the other day, and it was mentioned again on twitter, so I decided to offer my take here.

As Kurt pointed out, almost all of the 13 player spots are filled. You know the names, but for the sake of not overlooking someone, there will be two catchers, Gerald Laird and (probably) Alex Avila, infielders Miguel Cabrera, Scott Sizemore, Adam Everett, Brandon Inge, and Ramon Santiago will all be there, too. Outfielders Johnny Damon, Austin Jackson, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, and Ryan Raburn will also make the team. That leaves just one spot for roughly four guys; Clete Thomas, Don Kelly, Jeff Larish, and Brent Dlugach.

We’ll start with Larish, as he is the easiest to dismiss. Easiest only because he is not on the 40-man roster. Larish is having a very good camp with the Tigers. He has hit quite well, and until midway through the 2009 season was looked at as someone who could very well be a part of the team’s future. Larish has always had power, but struggles to make contact at times. His natural position is first base, but the Tigers have tried him at third as well, with predictably shaky results.

The problem that Larish faces is that not only would he have to out-perform the other players mentioned, he would have to play so well that Detroit would be okay with possibly losing another player from the roster in order to add him. His LH power bat would be nice to have on the bench, but he won’t see much time in the field at either corner. Defensively, if Brandon Inge were to come up injured, Larish simply isn’t good enough to fill in for long at third base. So the Tigers would end up having to add another infielder to take over. He’ll end up traded or in the minors, where he will have to compete with Ryan Strieby for at bats in Toledo.

For Brent Dlugach, it’s more of a question of need, and of options. Dlugach plays well at second, third, and short, and has shown he can carry a good enough bat to play in the majors. Unfortunately, Santiago already does all that for the Tigers. Dlugach has a minor league option remaining, so without the obvious need, Dlugach will spend at least the start of 2010 in Toledo. If the Tigers need someone other than Santiago to play on the infield, Raburn can fill-in at both second and third if needed.

As far as Don Kelly is concerned, his case was much stronger a week ago than it is today. With Inge trying to come back from two knee surgeries, Kelly’s adept glove at third, not to mention second, first, and all three outfield spots, coupled with his LH bat seemed like the best fit. When camp games began, Kelly was stroking line drive after line drive as well. But last week, Inge returned to action and has progressed to the point that he will almost assuredly be ready for Opening Day.

While Kelly would have been the best fit as a replacement for Inge for any reasonable length of time, Raburn and Santiago can cover the hot corner on a more short term basis should Inge require a day or two off every now and then.

That leaves just Clete Thomas. Thomas is useful as a pinch runner, as is Kelly, and also bats left handed. Thomas probably has a bit more pop in his bat, but the true difference lies with his glove. Thomas was the best outfield defender the Tigers had last season. He has a strong enough arm to play right and the speed and instincts to play center as well. The question has always been about his bat.

So far this spring, Thomas has been hitting quite well. He has had a problem in the past where his swing gets a little long, leading to far more strikeouts than one would like. He’s a flyball hitter who has enough power to carry some balls out of the yard, but doesn’t hit for a high average. Kelly, on the other hand, is more of a line drive hitter, leading to a higher average, but fewer home runs.

There are a few factors that lead one to think that Kelly would still have the upper hand to nab the final roster spot. For starters, Kelly is without a minor league option, so to send him down, the Tigers would first have to pass him through waivers. Kelly did clear waivers a season ago when Detroit sent him down, but his very good spring might make him more attractive this time around. There is a good possibility he would be lost to another team.

Conversely, Thomas does have an option remaining, so to send him down costs the Tigers nothing and both players would remain property of the Tigers.

Kelly also has more value in terms of versatility in that he can play almost anywhere on the diamond. Thomas is strictly an outfielder, but is far superior defensively there. Both players have enough speed to be useful as pinch runners, and their bats are essentially a wash, though each have different strengths.

What is may come down to is the health of Inge. With a longer term solution not needed at third base, Kelly’s value becomes diminished a bit. If the Tigers think Inge is ready to play every day by the end of camp, they may well be open to the idea of possibly losing Kelly through waivers in order to keep Thomas.

The facts are that neither Kelly nor Thomas will likely ever be everyday type players, at least not with Detroit. Thomas is young enough to change that, but Kelly is what he is at this point. The other factor here is that Toledo is basically set as far as outfielder are concerned as well, Brennan Boesch, Casper Wells, Wilkin Ramirez, and Ryan Strieby will all be there in 2010, barring a trade of course.

With all these factors in mind, the easiest solution to solve the roster crunch, both in Toledo and in Detroit, is to add Thomas to the Tigers and to waive Kelly. If Detroit decides to go the other way, there will have to be some creative trades made to free up minor league at bats.