December 7, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Tony Paul

Tigers likely to deal Brennan Boesch; math doesn't add up for a roster spot

The promise Brennan Boesch once had as a starting outfielder with the Tigers has diminished to the point where a trade is likely. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Nashville, Tenn. - Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski shared an interesting revelation this week at baseball's annual winter meetings.

While rival executives are inquiring about many players within the Detroit organization, it turns out the queries have been more frequently about players on the major league roster than prospects.

And one name certain to have been asked about is Brennan Boesch.

The Tigers, of course, don't really know what to make of Boesch, the left-handed-hitting corner outfielder. He has stretches in which he's a legitimate offensive force, but he too often goes MIA.

This past season, it was mostly the latter — a big reason why his spot on the Tigers' 25-man roster, or even anywhere within the organization, is in serious jeopardy. Andy Dirks is the runaway favorite to win the left-field job, but even the names of youngsters Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos are perceived to have more of a chance at the gig than Boesch.

"We'll just see what ends up happening as far as when he goes to camp," said Dombrowski, who decided to tender Boesch a contract for 2013 — when that was far from a given. "We've seen a really good Brennan Boesch and we've seen a Brennan Boesch that hasn't been quite as good."

OK, somebody has to say it: That's a massive understatement.

Now, back to Dombrowski.

"And if he's a really good Brennan Boesch, then he's a really good hitter, and he can force a lot of playing time and make some tough decisions," Dombrowski said. "And if not, we'll tackle that."

Meteoric start

Boesch, 27, arrived on the scene in Detroit in 2010, and made an immediate impact with a great first-half — even spurring chatter that he deserved to make the All-Star team as a true rookie. But the second-half was an absolute debacle, as he batted just .163 (compared to .342 in the first half).

So the following winter, the talk was all about consistency. That's what the Tigers wanted to see from baby-faced Californian in 2011 — and he somewhat delivered. His batting average fell off after the All-Star break, but not as severely. Plus, a thumb injury he tried to play through was partly to blame.

Eventually, the thumb forced him to shut it down, and he was left off the postseason roster, a big blow for a Tigers lineup that also was dealing with injuries to Delmon Young and Magglio Ordonez.

The story of last offseason, then, was his health. If he was healed, it was widely believed he'd be an impact player again — at least, an impact bat; his defense in right field never will draw rave reviews — because he finally showed the consistency that he lacked his rookie year.

And the thumb, it was fine.

But aside from a couple hot streaks, nothing went right in 2012 for Boesch, not in the first half and not in the second half. He started only two games after Sept. 17 — and none in the playoffs again. The breaking point seemed to be the pivotal, early September series with the White Sox in Chicago. Manager Jim Leyland was stubborn and continued to pencil Boesch's name into the lineup, hoping with at least one swing he'd take advantage of the quaint U.S. Cellular Field dimensions.

So clear Leyland was in his reasoning for playing Boesch, he even took the unusual step of actually telling Boesch to swing for the fences. But still, the at-bats, for some reason, appeared hesitant. And the last straw was the makeup game in Chicago on Sept. 17; Boesch got another chance and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. And that was just about it for him.

Garica, the rookie, then became Jim Leyland's go-to guy for right field, even in the playoffs.

Benchings never sit well with any major leaguers; Boesch seemed to grow particularly perturbed and moody, and that couldn't have helped his cause — since he already seemed to be pressing. He showed some good patience at the plate his rookie season; he was a free-swinger in 2012 (.286 OBP), which might've been a sign of lacking confidence. Slumping hitters fear falling behind in the count.

Boesch, a third-round pick by the Tigers in 2006 out of Cal-Berkeley, has a reputation as a streaky, hot-and-cold player. The Tigers, though, aren't convinced that's the whole truth.

"I don't really call them hot-and-cold streaks for really young hitters. I call it the education of hitting in the big leagues," Leyland said. "When Boesch came up, he was really impressive. We think that's still there, and maybe he hasn't made the necessary adjustments."

(Not unlike another Tigers outfielder, Quintin Berry, who started with a bang, then faded away as the rest of the league started learning how to get to him.)

Leyland did point out all hitters — even veterans — have ups and downs. He likened it to school. Even the Harvard-bound senior can get stumped once in a while.

"In school," he said, "even after you learn it, you have some lulls sometimes where it's not clicking."

The Tigers also acknowledge the struggles might've, in the end, got the best of Boesch mentally. And once you've lost focus upstairs, it's a nightmare trying to put the puzzle back together.

"Sometimes the mental end plays into it, you're in a spot where you start to press, and all of a sudden are trying to get out of it," Dombrowski said. "Sometimes you're your own worst enemy."

Said Leyland: "It can be a mental game, whether you've played one year or 10 years."

Crowded outfield

OK, so now what?

The Tigers either will carry two backup outfielders or two backup infielders — though the latter appears more likely, because with nine-time Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter in the fold, Leyland no longer has to worry about using a defensive replacement in the outfield late in close ballgames.

And if they only carry the one backup outfielder, it'll be a right-handed hitter, either one acquired on the free-agent market (which the Tigers prefer) or Garcia or Castellanos, to alternate with Dirks.

Under that scenario, it appears Boesch would have to beat out Dirks, head to head, to make the team. And barring an injury, that just doesn't seem all that realistic. Dirks not only showed a lot at the plate last season, but the Tigers love the idea of a Hunter-Austin Jackson-Dirks outfield.

The Tigers were asked if a stint in the minor leagues could help a player like Boesch, even though he hasn't played at Triple A Toledo since 2010, and hasn't played full-time there since 2009.

"Could he benefit? Perhaps," Dombrowski said. "But at some point, I think you have to start looking at that when a guy reaches a certain age and service time, because their heart's not gonna be in it."

Add it all up and read between the lines, and, frankly, it'd be a surprise if Boesch isn't traded next week or the week after — or certainly before camp begins.

He should make between $1 million and $2 million in 2013, and he won't command a ton in a trade, so he's affordable on both counts. And even though last season was awful, by his standards, he did still have 12 home runs, and 54 RBIs - which really was a Ryan Raburn-type season, before Raburn bombed and had and even more horrific 2012 season than Boesch.

So don't be surprised if a team like the Royals, Mariners or Rays takes a chance.

The potential still is there — even if his spot with the Tigers might not be for very much longer.

tpaul@detnews.com

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