The first thing that went through my head when I received news of Leyland’s retirement was, what must Don Kelly be thinking right now? Okay, that’s a lie, my first thought was is it April 1st already?
Don Kelly is the perennial fall guy for Tigers fans. It’s not so much that we like to blame him when things go wrong for the team—because Kelly is rarely responsible for major mistakes—but his aw-shucks-nice-guy demeanor makes him easy to poke fun at.
Many people believe the only reason Kelly has stuck with the team so long was Jim Leyland’s evident fondness for him. He wouldn’t be the first person to outstay their usefulness because of Jim’s devotion. Ryan Raburn, many would argue, stayed with the team at least two seasons too long, and was only called back because Jim liked him.
Don Kelly will be eligible for arbitration again this offseason. Last year the Tigers agreed on a one-year, $900,000 contract for the 33 year old. Many are suggesting that Kelly, along with Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel are the likely targets to get lost in the offseason shuffle. Jhonny Peralta will almost certainly not be returning now that he’s eligible for free agency and the Tigers have a permanent short stop in Jose Iglesias. But more people will have to go to make room for young blood and less expensive replacements. With so much money tied up in the contracts for Verlander, Prince, Sanchez and a probably handsome pay raise to keep Scherzer, cuts will need to be made elsewhere.
So why should the Tigers keep Don Kelly now that his managerial guardian angel is gone?
Don Kelly is not a great player. He is more likely to win Mr. Congeniality than he is to ever take home a batting title or a Gold Glove, yet there are merits to keeping him on the team. He’s a career .229/.290/.344 player which is… average. Matt Tuiasosopo, by comparison, was an addition Tigers fans really enjoyed in the early season, but whose performance petered out after the All-Star break. Matt’s career stats are .207/.290/.356 and Ramon Santiago (who will most assuredly not return now that he’s a free agent) has a career .243/.311/.330. Point being these guys are all average players. They’re not starting lineup guys.
But much like a middle reliever is an essential component to the bullpen, so to are the benchwarmers who function as great utility players. The Tigers have struggled to find a reliable option in left field, where they cycled primarily between Dirks and Tuiasosopo for the season, depending on the arm of the pitcher that day. Kelly isn’t an option as permanent left field relief, and since he bats left he’s also not a great option to alternate with Dirks on a day-to-day basis.
Which brings us back to the main question: why keep Kelly?
For one thing, his averageness is reliable. In a lineup where injury is routine and we see players like Austin Jackson out of rotation for weeks, having a guy on the bench who can play (and has played) every position is an asset. In the postseason Kelly was considered the Tigers’ third-string catcher, which became an item of serious consideration when Avila left game five of the ALCS with potential concussion symptoms. The guy is versatile, and when we look at all the drama surrounding Peralta’s temporary move from SS to LF, that kind of versatility becomes an asset.
Kelly is also a fan favorite, if not in the same way Cabrera and Verlander are. You won’t spot many #32 jerseys on game day, but you will read a barrage of "Don Kelly gets an RBI and borrows your car, but brings it back washed with a full tank of gas" tweets. His humbleness and evident team spirit make him the kind of player it’s impossible to hate, even if you make fun of him for it.
So, in what I meant to call "The Worst Day of Don Kelly’s Career", I argue the opposite of what most will. Keep Donnie Baseball. With Santiago and Tuiasosopo most likely exiting there will be gaps to fill. So what’s so wrong with having a little bit of the Average Guy on our bench?
He can remind us of the Skipper every time he comes up to bat.