Andy Dirks began a rehab assignment in Toledo on Sunday. Al Alburquerque will now begin a rehab assignment in Lakeland. Drew Smyly should soon be healthy enough to pitch. When these players are healthy and ready to return to the Tigers, the club will have to make some decisions about the major league roster, and the decisions this time won't be as easy as using an option. Let's focus for now on Andy Dirks.
Dirks has been on the disabled since June 3, retroactive to May 31, with a hamstring injury to his right leg. He has suffered a couple of setbacks which required changes to his treatment program that have delayed his return to the major leagues. He says that he is now ready to play baseball. Jim Leyland said that "His will be a little bit longer than most rehabs". A player can be on a rehab assignment for up to ten days (20 days for pitchers) but anything longer would require the player's consent.
Dirks was second hottest hitters on the team to Austin Jackson when he went on the disabled list. He was the starting left fielder and the no. 2 hitter with a stat line of .328/ .379/ .515/ .894, with four homers and 44 hits in 146 plate appearances. Against right handed pitching, Dirks has a sizzling stat line of .355/ .383/ .555/ .957. Against lefties, he hit just .208 in limited action, but still has a .700 OPS. At a time when the Tigers were searching to fill the corner outfield spots and the second spot in the lineup, Dirks filled them, giving the team exactly what was needed.
One would think that Dirks would be returned to his starting role, at least against right handed pitchers, which is about 75% of the time. But it's not that simple. A lot has happened with the Tigers since Dirks went on the disabled list. The Tigers will have to take a player off the major league roster when Dirks returns to the team. Following is a short list of the players that might be moved to make room for Dirks.
Quintin Berry: Since being called up by the Tigers on May 23, Berry has been a productive player, hitting .279/ .361/ .391/ .752 in 50 games. He leads the team in stolen bases with 14, and has yet to be caught stealing. Berry has played more innings and more games in left field this season than any other Tiger, and has been anchored in the 2 slot behind Austin Jackson for the past several weeks, especially against right handed pitching. Only Cabrera and Jackson have scored more runs per game than Berry. Defensively, he has been a bit below average, making some spectacular catches in key situations at times.
Prognosis: Berry does have options left, so he could be sent to the minors and remain in the organization, but such a move would be a big surprise, since he has provided a much needed spark to a lineup that is otherwise slow and awkward on the bases.
Don Kelly: The adjective most often used to describe Don Kelly outside of Rogo's website is "versatile". Jim Leyland loves having Kelly on the roster because he can play all eight positions on the field, if necessary, and has even pitched a third of an inning in relief, but his hitting leaves a lot to be desired. In 114 plate appearances this season, Kelly is hitting just .178, with an OPS of .519.
Prognosis: Kelly is out of options, so he would have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors, and he would have to consent to an outright assignment even if he did clear. Still, his value is now limited since Santiago and Infate can cover multiple infield positions, and the Tigers have a quantity of better outfielders. Odds of being designated for assignment are substantial.
Ryan Raburn: One would hope that the arrival of Omar Infante means that Tiger fans will never again see Ryan Raburn in the infield, where he has consistently been one of the worst defenders in the league for the two and half seasons that he has played there. Ramon Santiago should assume the utility role and provide ample backup for Infante at second base. In the outfield and DH, Raburn is in the mix with Jackson, Boesch, Berry, Young, Dirks, and Kelly, all vying for playing time. Raburn is still a plus defender in the outfield, but as a hitter, his numbers this year are even worse than Kelly's. In fact, his batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS are the worst in the league among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. He has a negative 1.3 WAR for the season, according to Fangraphs.
Prognosis: Raburn's job has to be in serious jeopardy. He was optioned earlier this year, and inexplicably recalled after not hitting well even at triple-A Toledo. He showed signs of life in late June, only to sink back into darkness again in July. The one saving grace for Raburn is that he has hit the cover off the ball in August and September the past two seasons. He has hit .307 with an OPS of .852 in August and .308 with an OPS of .891 in September over his career. The Tigers could keep him in the hope that he snaps out of his funk once again, but he'd have to fight for playing time in the outfield with players more deserving of playing time.
Andy Dirks: It is at least theoretically possible that the Tigers option Dirks to Toledo when his rehab assignment is finished, although that would seem unfair and unwise, given his earlier performance this season, and the lack of production that they have had from their corner outfield positions this season. Brennan Boesch has been red hot in July, so he figures to occupy right field, and Berry has provided a spark in left field. Defensively, Dirks is at least average or above in the field, and he is a text book player who makes very few mistakes with his sound approach to the game.
Prognosis: My best guesstimate is that Dirks resumes his starting position in left field, pushing Berry to the bench unless Boesch falters in right field. Dirks would bat second against right handed pitchers while Infante bats second against lefties. However, Jim Leyland will probably ease Dirks back into the lineup, starting him most days against right handed pitchers, and giving all of the outfield or DH players some rest once a week or so.
Caveat: Once the July 31 trade deadline passes, MLB will enter a period where players can be put through "revocable waivers", and it is common practice for clubs to put most of the players on their rosters through this process so that they can at least entertain the possibility of trading them. A player that is claimed while on these special waivers may be recalled by his club, but then he can only be traded to the club that claims him. If more than one club puts in a claim, the team in the same league with the lowest winning percentage at the time has priority. This is how the Tigers put in claims in the past on Aubrey Huff and Delmon Young.
These waivers are different from "outright waivers" and different from designating a player for assignment for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release. If the Tigers plan to send either Kelly or Raburn to the minors, they would first have to designate them and put them through outright waivers, meaning that any club could claim them and they'd be gone, along with their salaries.
When a player is designated for assignment, the club has ten days to trade them, release them, or outright them (with their consent, in the case of Kelly or Raburn). So, they could be designated on Friday, but not put on waivers until the following week. If outrighted, either player could be recalled on September 1st, as long as there is room on the 40 man roster.
Prediction: Either Kelly or Raburn will be designated for assignment, and there is a decent chance that they will clear waivers. I don't have a strong feeling, nor a strong preference, either way. Raburn has some chance of heating up and his bat could be useful. There's not much chance that Kelly provides a lot of value, so I'd probably choose to let him go.