Detroit Tigers outfielder Clete Thomas has long been one of manager Jim Leyland’s favorite players. During Spring Training last year, Thomas was locked in a battle with utility-man Don Kelly for the club’s final roster spot. A shoulder injury sidelined Thomas for the final two weeks of camp and effectively sealed his fate. Thomas began the season in Triple-A for the Toledo Mudhens.
He struggled out of the gate with Toledo, but his bat was heating up in mid-May. Thomas began to show the power stroke that had made him a batting practice spectacle in his time in the big leagues. But Thomas suffered a knee injury that wound up requiring microfracture surgery and he missed the remainder of the year.
Thomas, now 27, has never played a full season in the big leagues, but the former sixth round pick has been praised by Leyland in the past with the skipper going so far as to say that Thomas “will be an everyday player someday.” While Thomas’ injury certainly has cast a shadow of doubt on that statement, the play of fellow Tigers prospects Casper Wells and Brennan Boesch hasn’t helped, either.
Thomas should head to camp with a clean bill of health. While no one can be sure how his repaired knee will respond until games are played, typical recovery time should allow for his to be at least very near full strength when camp opens. Unfortunately for him, the lost season of 2010 may wind up leaving him with a much larger hill to climb to get back to the big leagues.
When he was healthy, Thomas was considered on of the Tigers better defensive outfielders at all three positions. He has good speed and a very good trowing arm. At the plate, Thomas has extra-base power and the ability to reach the seats on occasion as well. He has had a tendency to get “a little long” with his swing, causing higher strikeout totals than one would like, however.
The biggest problem now facing Thomas as he tries to resume his major league career is the roster crunch in Detroit. With Austin Jackson and Magglio Ordonez set is center and right, and Ryan Raburn figuring in as the likely starting left fielder, Thomas will be again competing for a job as a reserve. He face the task of having to beat out Wells, Boesch, and Kelly for the job and this time, even his left handed bat won’t be a help, as both Boesch and Kelly are also left handed hitters. Kelly also showed last season that he could be used as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch-runner, also roles Thomas would be in line to fill.
If the Tigers go with a 12-man pitching staff, that would leave just four spots on the bench. One of them will be taken by Ramon Santiago, one will probably go to Kelly, who showed better-than-expected offensive prowess last year and good defensive versatility. The loser of the second base competition may be in line for a reserve role as well, especially if the Tigers elect to go with a platoon of Will Rhymes and Scott Sizemore while Carlos Guillen recovers from his own microfracture surgery. The last spot will be given to an outfielder.
If the Tigers prefer to have a little extra thump on the bench, Boesch seems like the obvious choice. Wells also has good power, however, and is a much better defender than Boesch and also has the ability to play centerfield. Both Boesch and Wells have minor league options remaining, so they could be sent down without penalty. Thomas, meanwhile, is out of options.
I expect the final decision will be based on merit, not roster flexibility, but if Thomas comes back healthy and resumes showing the skills that made him one of Leyland’s favorites, his lack of options may give him the upper hand in trying to make the club. If the Tigers decide to send him down, they’ll have to risk losing him to a waiver claim. To say that this Spring will be an important one for Thomas is a vast understatement.
UPDATE: I received a message from Thomas’ uncle, @1baseball34 on twitter, who tells me that Clete has been granted an additional option year based upon his injury last year. This changes the dynamic of the Tigers decision, but as I had said earlier, I think it will be based on merit rather than option years anyhow.