Should the Tigers offer Don Kelly a contract?

Leon Halip

Don Kelly has been a versatile substitute on the Tiger roster in recent seasons. He is eligible for arbitration for the third time this off season. Should the Tigers offer him a contract?

Don Kelly is at once the most loved and the most chastised player on the Detroit Tigers' roster. A jack of all trades, master of .... well you decide what he's good at. At a minimum, he's a player who can come into the game as a defensive replacement for a defensively challenged outfielder, or maybe a hobbling infielder. At best, he's an invaluable substitute to have on the bench and another left-handed bat in a lineup dominated by right-handers.

Kelly earned a salary of $900,000 for the 2013 season. The Tigers released him after the 2012 World Series, where he managed to find himself a spot on Jim Leyland's playoff roster. Once Kelly could not secure a major league contract with any other team, he was signed by the Tigers to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. After the spring, Leyland announced the seemingly predetermined conclusion that Kelly had once again made the team. As long as he made the team, he'd be paid the same salary as the previous season: $900,000.

Once on the roster, Kelly managed to last the entire season in the major leagues in 2013. He has now accrued four seasons plus 138 days of major league service time, and will be once again eligible for arbitration. Kelly is seemingly a perennial non-tender candidate. The Tigers have several options about what to do with Kelly. They could:

  • Offer him a contract, which must be at least 80% of the salary he made in 2013. The two sides could then settle on terms before Spring Training as arbitration deadlines approach.
  • Release him. If he doesn't find another job, invite him to spring training later in the winter.
  • Release him and let him go elsewhere.
  • Boesch him. That is, sign him to a contract for one season which is not guaranteed, and if he's not making it by mid-Spring Training, let him go at a cost of one-sixth of his annual salary.

If the Tigers tender a contract to Kelly, he'd stand to get a modest raise in his salary, perhaps to about $1.2 million for 2014. If he is non-tendered, he will be a free agent able to negotiate with any club.

On the field, Kelly hit .222/.309/.343/.652 with six home runs and 23 RBI. His negative 0.7 WAR ranked 54th among 57 AL outfielders with at least 250 plate appearances. He is not known for his bat, but there he was, pinch hitting on occasion with the game on the line on multiple occasions. That says more about the strength -- or lack thereof -- of the Tiger bench than anything else.

The Tigers certainly need to upgrade their bench this offseason. It has been a weakness on a team stacked with talent in the lineup for several years now. They have let Matt Tuiasosopo go, being claimed off waivers by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Ramon Santiago is a free agent, unlikely to return. Brayan Pena has confirmed that the team has told him he will not be back for 2014.

That leaves Kelly as the sole survivor among the riders of the lonesome pine in Detroit. Bryan Holaday has been all but given Pena's job as the backup catcher, and Hernan Perez would seem to be a favorite for one infield spot. The club figures to carry another infielder and another outfielder, of which Kelly is potentially both. The team wants to get faster, cheaper, and better defensively, and it would seem that Kelly is those things too.

Jim Leyland made no secret of how much he valued Kelly's presence on the team. With Leyland gone, it would seem that Kelly's days as a Tiger are also numbered. However, maybe not. There are inexpensive, low risk ways to keep Kelly in the mix if the club values his service to the team. Dave Dombrowski has had a hand in bringing Kelly back year after year, and he might just do the same again.

What do you think?

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