Andy Dirks is one of the few position players on the Detroit Tigers' roster to be drafted by the team, raised on the farm, and actually contribute significantly in the major leagues over the past several seasons. Following a year that saw him miss the entire 2014 season due to injuries, his future with the club is uncertain.
When the Tigers signed Rajai Davis to a two year, $10 million contract for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, they did not envision Davis being a full-time player (much less a full-time center fielder). The plan was to split time between Davis and Dirks in left field, creating an effective outfield platoon. It was a good idea at the time, and it's still a good idea today.
Dirks is one of five Tigers players who are eligible for salary arbitration this winter, and he stands to receive about $2 million for the 2015 season. If he is healthy and as productive as he was in 2012 or in the second half of 2013, he is well worth it. The big if, of course, is his health.
Dirks agreed to terms with the club on a one year, $1.625 million contract for 2014, avoiding arbitration and reported to spring training with the expectation that he would get the majority of plate appearances playing left field against right-handed pitchers. Those plans were shelved when it was learned that he would require back surgery and would be sidelined for at least 12 weeks. To make a short story long, he never made it back.
Dirks was transferred from the 15-day to the 60-day disabled list in April as the team needed space on the 40 man roster to call up J.D. Martinez. Little did anyone realize at the time that Martinez would be one of the team's most productive hitters, occupying a regular spot in the outfield for the rest of the season.
For Dirks, the season brought one setback after another. After resuming baseball activities in June and starting a rehab assignment, he was shut down due to a hamstring issue. When that cleared up, he went back on rehab, but was again pulled due to inflammation in his back. Then another rehab assignment, then another hamstring issue. It wasn't until September that he was finally shut down for the season.
When healthy, Dirks showed that he can play in the major leagues. He hit .322/.370/.487 with eight home runs in 344 plate appearances in 2012. He struggled early in 2013, but finished strong, hitting .278 with a .354 on base percentage after the All-Star break. He was nominated for a Gold Glove at the end of the season.
On paper, it would seem that Dirks fits the Tigers' needs to a tee. Dave Dombrowski went through the club's wish list in his post season presser. He mentioned the need for a center fielder, either in the form of a full-time center fielder or someone to platoon with Rajai Davis. He mentioned the need to add a left-handed bat somewhere in the lineup. He mentioned the bullpen, and the hope that Bruce Rondon would be returning.
With respect to Dirks, Dombrowski had this to say, per MLB.com:
"Well, when he left he wasn’t 100 percent at the time. Now, when will he be 100 percent? I don’t know that answer quite at this time. We still have to make some decisions in that regard."
The decision would be whether to tender a contract offer to Dirks or allow him to become a free agent. One could not blame the Tigers if they don't want to go into the 2015 season relying on Dirks as the only answer to their outfield needs.
Rajai Davis is not a good outfielder, and is not a good hitter against right-handed pitching. In fact, Dirks has been a better player than Davis in each of his first three seasons in the major leagues. He is better offensively and better defensively. Davis is an excellent hitter against left-handed pitching, but that only accounts for about one-third of the plate appearances during a major league season.
If healthy, Dirks could provide the team with some much needed defense in the outfield, and a bat near the top of the order to replace Torii Hunter against right-handed pitchers. When Dirks isn't starting, he would give them a legitimate left-handed hitter on the bench. If he is healthy.
As the Tigers look through the names of free agent outfielders who could fill a need, there are a few names that stand out. Melky Cabrera of the Blue Jays is one, and Nick Markakis of the Orioles is another. Both are adequate defensively, but neither is a plus defender. Either one would require an expensive multi-year contract that the club may not be willing to pay.
The options for center fielders are not attractive. Then again, neither is the prospect of Rajai Davis playing center field. Colby Rasmus, a .225 hitter with 18 home runs for the Jays last season, and a minus defender, is the most attractive free agent center fielder. The Tigers don't see Dirks as a center fielder.
The ideal solution is to trade for a full-time center fielder, play J.D. Martinez in one corner, and platoon Rajai Davis with a left-handed hitter in the other corner outfield position. Dirks could be that guy, but so could Tyler Collins. Worst case, Dirks could be a solid defensive replacement and a left-handed bat off the bench. Unlike Don Kelly, he can actually hit.
The club does not have to make an immediate decision on Dirks. The date to tender contracts to arbitration eligible players is not until December 2nd, just prior to the winter meetings. They can even come to terms on a non-guaranteed contract and terminate the contract for a pro-rated share in the spring if things aren't working out. Dirks does have options remaining.
Perhaps the most likely scenario with Dirks is that the Tigers negotiate a contract with him to avoid arbitration, then sort out between Dirks, Tyler Collins, and Steven Moya which player(s) will be on the major league roster. There is room on the roster for more than one of them. If healthy, Dirks should have the inside track on a job that includes a significant starting role. If he's healthy.