We hold these truths as self evident: Ryan Raburn, Austin Jackson and Magglio Ordonez have their outfield positions safely sewn up -- no matter what Bobby Valentine says on ESPN. Beyond that, it's hard to say for sure what the Tigers will do and who they will bring north.
Entering spring training, the primary candidates appeared to be Don Kelly (maybe -- I think he's safe as some sort of super sub roll), left-handed slugger Brennan Boesch, left-handed slick fielder Clete Thomas and right-handed slugger/fielder Casper Wells. Since then we can probably add one more name to that list: leff-handed batter Andy Dirks, as Jim Leyland recently told the media he's in the running.
Obviously those are quick descriptions of the players, but who the Tigers decide to take north will probably be more dependent on how manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski see the needed roles on the 25-man roster as much as anything that happens in the box scores over the next few weeks. That isn't to say spring training success isn't important. It's just that deciding your ballclub based on the limited statistics of spring training isn't a good idea. Deciding it based on your needs as well as the scouting report put together by watching the players in situations during the five weeks of spring training is a much better way to go.
I'm not telling the Tigers anything new here, but sometimes the fans can put too much emphasis on the results of these games and not the way they're played.
So where do things stand right now? Well that depends on how you see things. Here are the three most likely ways of composing the roster, depending what you believe.
If you believe the key component is defense:
Well, sorry Brennan. But if the decision this spring is based on the ability to step into the game in late innings in place of the average-at-best fielders Raburn and Ordonez, then the players who go north are Clete Thomas and Casper Wells. Thomas isn't going to give you the same ability at the plate as Boesch, but it might not be as night-and-day difference between the two as you might believe. We all know the reason for that. As good as Boesch was for his first two months he was bad for his second two months. He's probably somewhere in between, but Thomas isn't too bad himself. Wells is an obvious choice, both because he gives a right-handed option at the plate and because like Thomas he plays stellar defense.
Given the team's less-than-stellar defense overall this might be a smart way to go.
If you believe there's no need for a right-handed bat off the bench:
Take Casper Wells out of the equation to begin with. And then you can narrow down the options to "bring north a slugger and a fielder" or "bring north a pair of fielders."
I haven't named Andy Dirks yet, but it's not because I forgot him. He's just a hard one to label and without having anything in particular to hang his hat on makes it difficult to find a defined role. When it comes to making up a major league bench, you like to have defined roles and role players who excel in them. Dirks can probably best be seen as a strong fielder. A former college pitcher and a center fielder, he can certainly be trusted as a late-innings defender. It's hard to say what he brings to plate, though. Across 192 games in Double-A, Dirks got on base at a .333 clip and slugged at .389. Last season after his promotion from Erie, he wowed with a .398 OBP and .648 slugging average. But that came in just 22 games at Triple-A Toledo. A safe bet says his stats would have leveled off a lot closer to his Double-A numbers over a larger number of games played. So despite Dirks' spring, I still consider him mostly a Clete Thomas type. Not that that's bad, as I've said. It's good to have options.
The most likely outcome under the all-lefty scenario is Boesch and Thomas. That's nice flexibility if you need a slugger to pinch hit or start the occassional game while having a nice defender in the outfield.
If you believe in the ultimate flexibity coming off the bench:
Then I think the best decision the Tigers could make is Casper Wells as well as Brennan Boesch. That gives Detroit options from both sides of the plate as well as a defensive replacement in the outfield who can play all the positions. I really like this combination.
So what should the Tigers do? That's actually a pretty hard question. But to answer it, I'd probably go north with Wells and Thomas and see how Boesch starts off playing regularly in Triple-A. At some point this season, he's going to be called up. It doesn't have to be to start the year. As the season goes on I expect all four of the players discussed will find major-league playing time and bring their own speciality to the team as it becomes necessary.