Don Kelly’s Case To Make Detroit Tigers’ 25-Man Roster Is Not A Good One


March 8, 2013; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Don Kelly (32) works out prior to the game against the New York Mets at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Don Kelly hit a home run today off of Roy Halladay in the Tigers’ exhibition game with the Phillies. The degree to which this event should inform our opinion on Kelly is pretty much zero, but it provides an excuse to bring up his name.

The Tigers will head north from Lakeland at the end of the month with four bench players. One spot will be taken up by a backup catcher – Brayan Pena, almost certainly – leaving the team with three spots to fill. This isn’t a new exercise – we’ve literally been doing it all offseason – but I hadn’t considered Don Kelly to be a legitimate candidate until just recently.

Kelly’s calling card has always been his versatility in the field. He could give you reasonable to above-average defense at every position save shortstop and catcher so his inclusion on the roster would free up manager Jim Leyland with respect to the other two bench spots. Want to keep a bat-only guy like Brennan Boesch on the team? You could do that. Want to keep a Rule 5 player that will hardly ever play? You could do that. Want to keep a pure pinch runner on the bench? You could do that.

The first goal in determining bench spots is usually to make sure you have all your bases covered defensively (figuratively and literally) in case injury occurs or you need to give a player a day off. That’s where having a Don Kelly-type player comes in handy: he’s one guy that fits this bill pretty much everywhere on the diamond.

But the question is whether or not this type of versatility is what the Tigers need this upcoming season.

Let’s start off by assuming Ramon Santiago makes the team and Danny Worth doesn’t. Worth has an option year left and he’s essentially a replica of Santiago with the glove in terms of positions played and relative quality. So, with Santiago in the fold, the Tigers have a (probably not worse than average) backup option at second base, shortstop, and third base.

So now we’re left with five players (all of which can play outfield) fighting for the final two spots.

Brennan Boesch – LF, RF

Plus: He’s potentially a good bat though his poor 2012 stat line and his poor (to date) spring don’t inspire confidence. If he’s going right, he’s good enough to either displace Dirks in left field or work his way into playing time with a split role.

Minus: He’s a terrible defender and, as mentioned above, he hasn’t actually hit well in a while. Also, he’s older than Delmon Young (which seems like a bad thing).

Jeff Kobernus – 2B, LF

Plus: He’ll be 25 this year which makes him a bit old for prospect status, but he’s still young enough that he could develop into a serviceable second base option for the team down the line. With 120 minor league stolen bases under his belt (at an 80%) success rate, he would bring a much needed element of speed to the bench.

Minus: He hasn’t played above AA and doesn’t have a track record of being a particularly good hitter at the minor league level. Doesn’t have much experience in the outfield.

Quintin Berry – LF, CF, RF

Plus: He has potentially game-changing speed if he could be used as a late-inning pinch-runner.

Minus: He’s just not a reliable hitter and his defense in center field is more “serviceable” than even average.

Kevin Russo – LF, 2B, 3B

Plus: Right-handed hitter that has the potential to be average with the bat in a platoon situation. More gap power than home run power, but could possibly provide a day off for Dirks without sacrificing much production. He’d have the ability to fill in at second or third in a pinch as well.

Minus: Minimal experience as a hitter in the major leagues and my impression – not necessarily a fact – is that his defense plays better in the outfield than the infield. He’s not prospect age so his potential long-term impact is minimal. I’m not sure how much the organization will actually consider him for a spot.

Don Kelly – LF, CF, RF, 3B, 2B, 1B

Plus: Could possibly provide the team average defense at six positions.

Minus: He’s not any sort of even marginal hitter. He’s old (will be 33 this year) and is likely seeing a defensive decline.

So we’ve established that Don Kelly provides versatility, but does his versatility provide an advantage over guys like Kobernus and Russo. He’s not going to out-hit either of those guys, and his ability to also play center field is really the only thing that sets him apart defensively. Is that enough – the simply ability to play center field – for him to make the team? And even that ability might not separate him from Kobernus who’s seen eight defensive innings in center this spring.

Kelly, of course, has the apparent advantage of being one of Jim Leyland’s favorites, but it doesn’t look to me like his usual advantage – that of brining lots of different gloves to the ballpark – sets him above a guy like Kobernus.

In my mind right now, Kobernus should get the third bench spot (with Pena and Santiago occupying the first two) leaving Boesch, Berry, and Russo to battle it out for the fourth and final position.