Jim Leyland loves versatile players, and he’s probably right to feel that way. Depending on how a team’s roster plays out, a Don Kelly-type player (someone that’s average or above at six or seven defensive positions) could save a club a roster spot, allowing them to carry an extra specialist on the big club (perhaps that’s a pinch hitter, a Rule 5 player, an extra reliever, or whatever).
But, as currently constructed, the Tigers roster doesn’t look that way. They’ll likely end up with reserves that field as well or better than Kelly and hit as well or better at every position. This fact is highlighted by the Tigers Official (and probably rather unreliable) depth chart. Donnie Ballgame is listed no higher than third at any position.
Andy Dirks should prove to be a plus defender in the corner outfield, and he’ll outhit Kelly every day of the week. You could make the argument that Kelly plays a better center field than Dirks does, and I’d listen to you there, but Austin Jackson has missed only 20 games in two years (less than 1.5 games per month), so you don’t necessarily need a plus defender to fill his shoes, just someone good enough to get the job done. Between Jackson, Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch, Ryan Raburn, and Dirks, the Tigers have five outfield options that are superior to Kelly.
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Wherever you feel Kelly falls in the infield pecking order has a lot to do with how well you think Brandon Inge can hit. Kelly had a much better year at the plate than Brandon did if you look at the overall numbers – Kelly’s .672 OPS was far superior to Brandon’s .548 – but the difference can be entirely attributed to how often Kelly hit with the platoon advantage. Kelly faced a right handed pitcher 92% of the time, while Brandon faced a lefty only 38% of the time. Of course, it is probably easier for lefties to gain the platoon advantage on a greater number of plate appearances than it is for righties, but Don Kelly started strictly against right-handers last year while Inge’s starts were split evenly between both handednesses. If Inge makes the club this year, it won’t be as a starter, so there should be little need to start him against right handed pitchers. This makes a big difference. Here are some batting numbers for each player with the platoon advantage.
Kelly (vs. RHP)
Inge (vs. LHP)
Even last year, a career year for Kelly at the plate, and a career low for Inge, there’s really no discussion as to who’s a better hitter (with the platoon advantage). If Leyland is smart about how he uses the DH position (using it to give Prince Fielder and/or Miguel Cabrera a “day off” from playing in the field against left handed pitching), then Inge could have a decent year.
And Inge is also in the process of showing the club that he can handle second base defensively, so between Ramon Santigo (the nominal starter at second base and backup to Jhonny Peralta), Raburn, and Inge, the Tigers have backup options at each infield position that give better total value that Kelly does.
I guess I’m not necessarily saying that Kelly won’t make the team, or even that he shouldn’t make it, but I have a hard time seeing how he provides much value at all to the club. All the position players I’ve listed above, plus Alex Avila and Gerald Laird, total twelve players, so there’s still one roster spot remaining. That spot could go to Kelly as a super-utility player, or it could go to someone like Jerad Head or Ryan Strieby if either one can prove themselves worthy of a pinch-hitting role, or it could go to Danny Worth or Clete Thomas.
I usually hate to see a ‘pinch hitting only’ player make a 25-man roster, but in this case, I might not be opposed to it. I don’t think the Tigers need another light-hitting, defense first guy on the bench (they already have those in spades), so why not carry a bench player for his offense?
I think Kelly will make the team in the end, Leyland loves having him around too much to cut him, but I’m just not sure that he’s the best option right now.
Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.