With the news that the Tigers have released Brennan Boesch on Wednesday, two other players in Lakeland have to like their chances of making the team a bit better. Jeff Kobernus, the right handed second baseman turned left fielder whom the Tigers picked up in the rule five draft, was likely already a favorite to make the club. Don Kelly, a familiar face who was released after the 2012 season and invited to spring training as a non roster invitee, suddenly has an inside track to make the team as well.
As Boesch was let go, Dave Dombrowski told the media that Andy Dirks, in a surprise to nobody, has won the starting job as the Tigers’ primary left fielder. The club has made no secret of the fact that they’d like to have a right handed hitter to share time with Dirks in left field, and they’ve ruled out keeping top prospects Nick Castellanos or Avisail Garcia unless they’re going to get regular playing time.
By process of elimination, that leaves Kobernus as the only other right handed hitter who might share time in left field. Mind you, he hasn’t played a fraction of an inning in the outfield in his entire pro career, which consists of all minor league innings. But the club figures that shouldn’t stop them from plugging him in left field as needed.
Kobernus brings an element to the team that has been mainly missing- speed. They have Quintin Berry, last summer’s great surprise, who led the team in stolen bases and did an admirable job filling in while Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks spent time on the DL. But Berry seemed to fade down the stretch last season, as the league appeared to have figured out how to keep him off the bases. Besides, Berry hits left handed, if at all.
The Tigers have given Kobernus more at bats than any other player in Lakeland thus far. He has been okay, hitting .263 with no homers, no doubles, and no stolen bases. He has a pair of triples, leads the team in hits and runs scored in very small samples, has been caught stealing once and been picked off base. Perfect!
Kobernus is not a utility infielder, such as Ramon Santiago or Danny Worth. He plays second base. And now, he plays left field, so we’re told. He doesn’t hit for power, even gap power, but he had a decent enough average in the minors. In fact, but for batting right and having been a second baseman, he looks much like a younger version of Berry.
So, pencil Kobernus in as one of the four bench players to go with the nine starters in the Tiger lineup. Another is Santiago, as of now, and another is backup catcher Brayan Pena. That leaves just one spot open.
Enter, or I should say re-enter Don Kelly. Again. Why Kelly? Because Jim Leyland loves having him on the team. Kelly hits about as well as Berry or Kobernus, but without the speed. He plays everywhere on the field, and he’s from Pittsburgh. With Boesch out of the way, the path is clear for Kelly to reclaim his spot on the roster, and on the Tiger bench.
Kelly is a career .232 hitter with an OBP of .283. In five partial seasons, he’s never hit above .250, and he hit just .186 in 127 plate appearances last year. The Tigers put him on waivers last season, and he went unclaimed. They released him, and no club would give him a major league contract. The Tigers signed him to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training and a clause that lets him opt out and become a free agent if he doesn't make the team.
Kelly has managed to log over 750 plate appearances in the majors, and over 3600 in the minors. He’s no kid at age 33, but he’s been around the block, around the horn, and around the league. Images of Leyland tearing up as he expressed his feelings on letting Kelly go last year are fresh in the minds of Tiger fans. It’s no secret that Leyland has a strong like for his most versatile player. Kelly is giving Leyland the cover that he needs this spring, batting .320 with a pair of home runs, a triple, and two doubles.
Like Robocop, they keep sending Kelly away, and he keeps coming back. After being sent to the minors last year, he reappeared when rosters expanded in September and found his way onto the playoff roster while Boesch was sitting at home.
And why shouldn’t he? Kelly does everything that is asked of him. He plays first base, second base, and third. He plays left, center, and right. He has more time at shortstop than any other position, but hasn’t played there for a while. He can be the emergency catcher, and the emergency pitcher. He does everything. Everything that is, except hit.
Welcome back, Don Bot. Rogo- he’s all yours!