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2017 Tigers player preview: Is Andrew Romine a legitimate option in center field?

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The utility man has spent most of his time in the infield, but he has the ability to take on a new responsibility.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Every team needs one of “those guys,” at least according to managers and television commentators. Quantifying their role can be difficult, but utility players have found a permanent home on many major league rosters, and in Detroit that has been no different. Folklore has it that “You can’t stop Don Kelly,” but maybe you can replace him. Essentially, that is what the Tigers have been trying to do with Andrew Romine.

The similarities between Kelly and Romine are eerily similar. Neither player is strong enough to be a starter, but both appeared in over 90 games per season with the Tigers. In Detroit, Kelly hit .234/.297/.340, while Romine has hit .238/.294/.300. Though Kelly averaged almost four homers a year to Romine’s two, the latter has averaged 10 steals compared to under three per season by Kelly. However, the real similarity is with the players’ defensive versatility: Romine has fielded eight different positions with Detroit, while Kelly recorded some time at catcher to check off all nine.

Finding a center fielder

Despite his ability to play all over the field — and take up the torch as the Tigers’ utility man — Romine has spent most of his time within the infield. During 2016, he recorded 91 appearances along the diamond compared to just 25 games in the outfield. Some of this was due to need and some was due to his strength as a late-game defensive substitution, but by trade he is more of an infielder than an outfielder.

However, Romine is certainly capable of playing somewhere like center field. He has proven to be an above-average defender overall over the course of his career, and nothing he has shown so far would indicate that his skills would not translate to the outfield. While this sample size is small, in 130-2/3 innings last season, he had a modest 0 DRS with no errors and earned a 10.2 UZR/150.

The numbers from his competition range all over the place, but they mostly make a case for Romine earning some time in center. In 2016, Tyler Collins had weak advanced defensive metrics in limited innings, while Mikie Mahtook looked fairly strong when he played. Anthony Gose fell in the middle, although historically he has been slightly below average in center. So while Mahtook is the best defender of the four, Romine very well may be the second-best option at the position.

The other side of the ball

Of course, being a competent defender is not the only thing to consider when giving the nod to Romine. As mentioned before, he has only been a .238 hitter with the Tigers, and he has not topped 71 wRC+ during any of the past four seasons. He is not necessarily a liability at the plate, but he provides very little offensive value.

Then again, someone has to play center field, and none of the other options are particularly overwhelming offensively. All three do have better numbers than Romine over the past three seasons — Collins with 93 wRC+, Mahtook with 87 wRC+, and Gose with 83 wRC+ — but Collins and Mahtook have recorded less than 400 plate appearances. Does this marginal offensive advantage outweigh these players’ defensive struggles? By fWAR, only Mahtook is stronger than Romine on a per-game basis.

A full year of Romine would put the Tigers near the very bottom in terms of center fielder wRC+, but could rank them near the top defensively if his UZR/150 is extrapolated over a full season. However, his 71 wRC+ would only fall slightly below average when compared to other teams’ bottom-three hitters, which is mostly likely where Romine would fine himself hitting in the order.

Does it make sense?

To answer the initial question, Romine could absolutely play center field for the Tigers in 2017. He would not be a defensive liability, and his flexibility with the glove would allow for some late-game maneuvering if necessary. Playing him every day would come at a cost offensively, but still may be worth it. The drop-off would not be that steep compared to any other internal alternative, and every team has at least a couple players who are glove-first in their batting order.

While the idea of using Romine even in a center field platoon may have seemed far-fetched a couple weeks ago, the recent injury to J.D. Martinez has put a gap in the Tigers outfield to start the season. Now there are two spots to fill in the outfield with no clear favorites to take up the majority of the innings.

Romine is already a lock to make the opening day roster, so it makes sense to utilize him in the most effective way possible. He can hit from both sides of the plate and can play in both center field and right field, as well as anywhere in the infield. As spring training starts to wind down, the Tigers need to quickly figure out who is going to be manning the outfield. It is becoming more clear that Romine can and should be in the middle of this conversation.