December 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Kurt Mensching: Bless You Boys

Tigers Rule 5 acquisition Jeff Kobernus, the 'new Kelly,' will get his shot

Infielder/outfielder Jeff Kobernus, who the Tigers traded for in the Rule 5 draft, has drawn at least one comparison to Tigers utility player Don Kelly (pictured). (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

There's nothing quite as loaded a statement as calling someone "the new Don Kelly."

Nothing against Kelly, it's just that fans either seem to love him irrationally or hate him irrationally.

People either wanted to know why the team didn't play Kelly more, or more likely, wanted to know why the Tigers kept him on the team at all.

Just reading his name, you probably formed an opinion pretty quickly. He's just not one of those players who goes under the radar.

Well, Kelly's gone now, possibly to never return, which left a hole in the Tigers' roster.

But not for long.

Trading minor leaguer Justin Henry to the Boston Red Sox, the Tigers picked up infielder-outfielder Jeff Kobernus in the Rule 5 draft.

According to CBS Sports' writer Danny Knobler, one anonymous "Tigers person" called Kobernus "the new Kelly."

(Interestingly, one would think that label could have been applied to infielder-outfielder Henry as well.)

Kobernus is a 24-year-old from the Nationals' farm system who has never played above Double A.

At Harrisburg of the Eastern League in 2012, he batted .282 with a .325 on-base percentage and .333 slugging average.

He stole 42 bases in his most recent season and 53 the year before.

Kobernus has mainly played at second base since making his professional debut in 2009, but he had college experience in the outfield during at Cal.

Sounds like the Tigers may have found another Quintin Berry instead.

Either way, teams need players like Kelly and Berry.

Role players are essential

Some fans might demand complete players at every position and on the bench, but it's unrealistic.

Teams need role players who bring a particular, reliable skill set with them that can be deployed at just the right time.

Kelly was not a Tiger because of what he could bring to the batter's box. That's also why he was a bit of a lightning rod.

Spending parts of four seasons with the Tigers, Kelly never hit better than a .250 average, and he never had an on-base percentage higher than .311. Both of those figures came in 2009.

But he could play every position on the team - including a brief appearance as a relief pitcher.

Not only could he field the positions, he could do it pretty well. Maybe not at a Gold Glove caliber, but almost always well enough that you didn't have to worry about his glove.

Whenever fans wondered what the Tigers could possibly see in the light-hitting journeyman, that was it.

Leyland knew he never had to worry about playing anyone out of position, because Kelly could take care of things reliably no matter what he was asked to do.

Can Kobernus make a smooth return to the outfield like Kelly? That remains to be seen.

But the Tigers have already found reason to like him.

Lots of potential

Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski sees the potential to help in any number of ways.

"He has a lot of speed and a lot of athleticism," Dombrowski said last week at the Winter Meetings. "He's a hard-nosed character guy."

Kobernus is not a starter, and probably not an everyday player. Undoubtedly, he'll leave some fans disappointed when his name is written into manager Jim Leyland's lineup.

But there are worse players to be compared to than Don Kelly.

Players taken in the Rule 5 draft must remain on the team's 25-man roster or be offered back to their former organization.

It's too early to say whether Kobernus will stick or not.

But if he performs anything like Kelly, he's probably going to remain a Tiger for some time.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com

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