Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has announced that Andy Dirks, who was slated to be the starting left fielder about 70% of the time, will have back surgery and will be out for about 12 weeks. That will put him back in the lineup around Memorial Day.
Jason Beck at MLB.com explained the procedure in more detail:
The procedure is called microdiscectomy, the same operation that Detroit manager Brad Ausmus had in 2010. As Ausmus explained it, a fragment of the disk between Dirks' L4 and L5 vertebrae tore away from the rest of the disk, so that piece must be removed to alleviate the pain. The operation will be performed by Dr. Thomas Tolli in St. Petersburg, Fla.
So, the obvious question becomes, who will replace Dirks in left field against right-handed pitchers? Dombrowski has initially said that they'd like to find a replacement internally. Of course he would. So let's look at the internal options first.
Rajai Davis: The newly acquired speedster was slated to be the lesser half of the left platoon anyway, and that was a solid plan. Davis kills left-handed pitching, but his splits against right-handed pitchers are not pretty. In 2013, Davis hit just .228/.273/.321/.594. Over his six-year-plus career, he has hit .255/.297/.353/.650 against right handers. For a left fielder with below-average defensive ability, that's what we call a hole in the lineup. Worse, for a position that often brings power to the lineup, Davis has an ISO (isolated power) of just .109. Further, Davis would not be available on the bench as a pinch runner, where he can be very valuable. Let's keep looking.
Don Kelly: The perennial non-tender candidate appears to be a lock to make the team now that Dirks is starting the season on the DL, unless the Tigers make a move to acquire another outfielder. He bats left, although not very well. Kelly hit .220/.311/.363/.674 in 194 plate appearances against rightzhanders in 2013, and .235/.295/.362/.657 in 875 plate appearances in his career. A bit more pop, but a poor on-base average.
Steve Lombardozzi: Competing with Kelly for the title of Mr. Versatility will be the newly acquired utility man who came to the Tigers in the trade for Doug Fister. In 573 plate appearances since being called up to the majors in 2011, Lombo has a line of .269/.305/.351/.655 against right handers, and an ISO of just .082 -- even worse than Davis. He has played the equivalent of 46 full games in the outfield, mostly in left, with a UZR/150 of -4.5 over that small sample. The Tigers are counting on Lombardozzi to be their primary backup at shortstop, even though he has only a couple of games at the position in the major leagues. We'll see what he does in Lakeland, but I wouldn't hold my breath on him providing any value as a corner outfielder.
Daniel Fields is a talented young outfielder who was just added to the roster in November. The son of Tigers' coach Bruce Fields, born in Detroit, he spent the season at Double-A Erie in 2013, posting a line of .284/.356/.435/.791 with 10 home runs, 58 RBI and 24 steals. Fields is a left-handed hitter who had declared his intent to attend the University of Michigan when the Tigers drafted him in the sixth round out of Detroit Jesuit (U of D) High School in the 2009 draft. I keep reading that Fields is not ready for show time, but I don't see any better options listed on this page. If he's on the roster, though, the Tigers will want him in the lineup most days.
Ezequiel Carrera is a former Cleveland Indian who was signed by Detroit to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training as a Non Roster Invitee (NRI). He is another speedy, light-hitting, left-handed hitter from Venezuela. Carrera has played more center field than anything, but has played all three outfield positions. Against right handers, he has a career line of .255/.301/.363/.664. He has just two career home runs, both against right handers, in 405 plate appearances.
Trevor Crowe is another former Indian, a Houston Astro in 2013, and a former first-round draft selection of Cleveland in 2005. He was signed to a minor league deal as an NRI. Crowe is a switch hitter with just over three years' major league experience, starting in 2009. He also has played all three outfield positions, with over 100 games each in both center field and left field. He has a batting line against right handers of .241/.292/.334/.626 with four home runs in 674 plate appearances. He leaves much to be desired in both the power and on base departments. He has 35 steals in 264 major league games. For what it's worth, Crowe has hit .291/.340/.393/.733 as a left fielder, with three of his four homers.
Free agents still unsigned include:
Jason Bay, a 35-year-old
lefty right handed power hitter who spent last year with Seattle, but looks pretty well cooked; Bay hit .180/.297/.350/.647 against right handers last year.
Juan Pierre, a 36-year-old left-handed hitter, who is like Rajai Davis's grandfather and never could hit much; Pierre hit .265/.297/.335/.632 against right handers in 2013 with the Marlins in a part-time role.
Rick Ankiel, a 34-year-old lefty hitter who split time between the Astros and the Mets in 2013, batting .195/.240/.441/.681 in 125 plate appearances vs RHPs. The one-time pitcher has a cannon of an arm.
Dewayne Wise, a 36-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder who spent the 2005 season in Toledo but was never called up to Detroit, hit just .241/.268/.333/.601 vs RHP last year in just 55 PA, and .234/.269/.397/.666 over his career. Mostly a center fielder.
Andres Torres is a 36-year-old former Tiger who hit .250/.302/.342/.644 for the Giants in 300 plate appearances last season, but just .206/.259/.305/.564 against right-handed pitchers. He's a switch hitter, and a decent outfielder who has played mostly left field recently.
Laynce Nix: is a 33-year-old left-handed hitter, a veteran of eleven seasons, who spent the 2013 season with the Phillies, where he hit just .185/.236/.269/.505 in 127 PAs vs RHPs. Those are the worst numbers so far.
Any of the above could be signed to a minor league contract with little to lose. Unfortunately, there's probably little to gain as well.
The Tigers could make a trade for a left-handed-hitting outfielder, or they could wait out the spring and see how some of the players in Lakeland perform. If none of the above seems fit for the job, there will be some players available on the trade market who don't quite make it with other clubs. Carlos Quentin in San Diego, who is perennially injured, comes to mind. I'm sure the Padres would love to shed his contract. Josh Willingham with the Twins is another. For health and money reasons, such players shouldn't cost much in the way of prospects, but for a two-month need, the Tigers wouldn't be willing to pay much, either.
Manager Brad Ausmus, when asked about a replacement for Dirks, seemed to indicate that Davis would have first crack at a full-time job.
"There's some flexibility," Ausmus said. "Right now I'm not focusing on opening up an infield spot. I'm focused on who's going to be playing left field for the Tigers. Obviously, we have Rajai. If Rajai plays well, he may be the only guy we need."
After six years of poor performance against right handers, I wouldn't count on that.