The Tigers are spending yet another postseason on the outside looking in despite a new 16-team playoff format, but the surprise retirement of manager Ron Gardenhire shortly before the end of the season has given Tigers fans a small story to follow while the majority of fans follow their team’s postseason run. The team is still in the early phases of their search, but have outlined their ideal hire as someone with previous coaching or managing success and have conducted interviews with a number of candidates.
The most recent person to receive an interview was none other than Don Kelly. The 40-year-old Kelly has been an oft-speculated fit on social media, and his interview confirms the team’s interest. Just how likely is he to get the job, and if he does, what will he bring to the table? Let’s dig in.
Selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 8th round of the 2001 Amateur draft, Kelly wasn’t a well-thought-of prospect and wore out his welcome in the organization. In 2006, he hit .228/.304/.312 in Toledo before being granted minor league free agency. He was picked up by the Pirates, played sparingly on their major league roster, and spent another season in the minor leagues with Arizona before finally latching onto an MLB role with Detroit in 2009.
The ensuing five seasons saw Kelly blossom from a relative nobody scrapping for a place in the game he loved to a cult hero among Tigers fans. He was never an especially great contributor but he played a vital role as the team’s Swiss Army knife in the first half of the 2010s. After the 2014 season, the Tigers let him walk in free agency and he caught on with the Marlins for another two years before hanging up his cleats for good.
During his time in the league, Kelly earned a reputation for his hard-nosed play and a cheery demeanor that made him a natural fit for a coaching job after retirement in 2016. His post-playing career began with a second reunion with the club who drafted him and he served as a major league scout for Detroit in 2018.
The Tigers were evidently not the only team who had Kelly on their radar, though.
He was quickly poached by the Astros, with A.J. Hinch tapping him as their first base coach. After the 2019 season ended, he left Houston to join his third organization in as many years, and again, the move came with a promotion. The Pirates hired Kelly as the right-hand man to their new manager, Derek Shelton. It was a move precipitated by Pittsburgh cleaning house over the offseason in a dramatic story that was overshadowed by the Astros’ cheating revelation.
Kelly’s rise to his current position as a bench coach has been nothing short of a whirlwind by comparison to baseball’s normally glacial pace. That’s something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it speaks to how strongly he is able to make an impression on the executives who make staffing choices. It’s a group of people who are often difficult to impress, especially for someone without much experience, but he’s been an in-demand product.
On the other hand, while his quick ascent has been impressive and fun to watch from afar, it also means he hasn’t been able to accrue to experience often demanded from managerial candidates. It’s also not as though he’s spent that time with particularly enviable organizations. The Tigers and Pirates were both bottom-5 teams the years he spent with them. Meanwhile, his experience with the smart, winning organization in Houston is now somewhat tainted by the understanding that their successes were tied to a sign-stealing scandal.
Is it a fit?
The fact of the matter is that while Tigers general manager Al Avila has evolved somewhat since taking over the team’s reins in 2015, he still has some strong leanings toward conservative baseball wisdom. In that school of thought, experience and accomplishments are king, and the fact of that matter is that Kelly has almost none.
That puts him behind the 8-Ball when being mentioned in the same breath as long-time coaches Pedro Grifol and George Lombard, who we’ve profiled as well. Even Marcus Thames, Kelly’s former teammate, has a much longer track record than the Tigers’ most recent interviewee. With pressure mounting on front-office executives to turn the Tigers into a competitive organization again, they may not be comfortable hiring a first-timer to manage the team. Even if they can stomach hiring a rookie, there are plenty of candidates with stronger track records in the coaching field available.
All things considered, Kelly is a long shot for the job. He’s on track to snag a managing gig in the not-too-distant future, especially in an era where teams are making bolder choices in their hiring. Still, more seasoning is probably required in this case. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a stronger candidacy from the former Tiger next time a job opens up in Detroit, but the time isn’t right for this pairing quite yet.