Lakeland, Fla. -- You might remember 2012. How the Tigers nearly lost a division title long before they lost a World Series.
And, in each case, it was for the same reason.
They didn't hit.
One by one, half a batting order either dissolved into oblivion or simply stumbled through a year in which every one of them was mostly off-key: Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, Alex Avila, etc.
People forget. On too many days or nights, the Tigers were operating with Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and, for the few months he was healthy, Andy Dirks, as their horsepower. It led to a lot of well-pitched games being wasted and to a pair of 2-0 shutouts in the World Series when the Giants pulled their four-game sweep.
Dirks' reward for being one of those steady few (.322 in 88 games) is to begin this season with a regular job in left field. He has to earn it, of course, and this is where spring camp could potentially become sweeter for the Tigers.
Dirks is a ballplayer
Dirks has been in the big leagues three seasons and is essentially a known quantity. He can hit (.293 in 166 games). He has decent speed. He can chase down a fly ball.
The only way he won't be in left field Opening Day is if he is beaten out by another Tigers outfielder whose offense overwhelms Dirks' bat. Two hotshot rookies, Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia, are probably too tender to pull it off. A pair of reserve players — Quintin Berry and Don Kelly — are fighting for bench spots, as is Rule 5 addition Jeff Kobernus.
It leaves Boesch as the top contender to dethrone Dirks. And if it were to happen, it would be no indictment of Dirks. Rather, it would signal that Boesch and his game-changing power package are back in alignment after three seasons of generally polarized output.
Boesch, in fact, looms during these early days of drills at Tigertown as perhaps the X-factor in spring's positional sweepstakes. Every place but left field is nailed down by people whose starting spots are basically uncontested.
Those who see Dirks as another lock are on firm ground. Dirks is predictable. Boesch is not. Boesch has had a habit of being in-and-out with his swing. He can rip pitches to all fields and to spots beyond all outfield fences for long stretches of times, which makes him a veritable dynamite stick in manager Jim Leyland's lineup.
But at other interludes, as was the case in 2012, he can be lost in a blur of uncertain swings and hapless at-bats.
'I'd bet on me,' says Boesch
The question is: What side of Boesch will the Tigers see in 2013?
There are indicators, as much as you can believe them and as much as they count in February, that Boesch might be back. Might be in line for a full season of day-to-day damage.
He spent the offseason in Santa Barbara, Calif., working out at the UC-Santa Barbara facility, as well as at Westmont College. He is not offering details, but his fall and winter were spent purifying a swing and a mind. And while folks shouldn't get carried away, Boesch's offseason is reminiscent of the driven, transformative months in which Kirk Gibson underwent a makeover ahead of the Tigers championship season of 1984.
"I'd bet on me," Boesch said, with a grin, as he sat at his locker in the Tigers clubhouse following Friday's initial full-roster workout.
Asked to explain what he might have done to smooth his impatient, upper-cutting swing, the Tigers X-factor wouldn't bite.
"I'll just let my production speak for itself," said Boesch, who, in the department of things-you-might-want-to-know, is the great-great nephew of three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
Dirks resides at a locker next to Boesch. He is the clubhouse's quiet guy. Quiet, in the still-waters sense. Dirks knows what's up. And he knows how to play baseball.
Apart from anything Boesch might do, Dirks is probably an everyday big leaguer. And very likely will be a good one for some years to come.
"Every part of the game is important for a guy like me," Dirks said. "I like to keep it simple. I like to make plays."
Left field is still, officially, unsettled. But it will stabilize in these coming weeks. And probably in happy fashion for a team that needs the firepower and consistency left field traditionally provides.