February 18, 2013 at 11:56 am

Lynn Henning

Four players locked in battle for Tigers' final 2 roster spots

Lakeland, Fla. -- Folks sometimes wonder if spring training is an excuse for baseball people to skip the snow and head for Florida. And, while the winks are appreciated, spring camp's worth was on display Sunday at the Tigertown complex's four practice fields.

Amid temperatures that had moved blessedly from the morning 40s into the 50s, Tom Brookens worked on one of the diamonds, schooling Tigers veterans and prospects on how to run from third base.

He lectured the troops about secondary leads. He displayed proper timing of steps when running on contact. He showed them how to glide in sidestep fashion during a rundown.

"If you get your back to them," he said of defensive players working their three-man weave during a rundown chase, "you're dead."

Wealth of skills necessary

Brookens' seminar was an extension of a theme manager Jim Leyland has talked about during spring camp's early days. It takes a wealth of skills to win baseball games. And those skills are as essential for bench players as for regulars.

Leyland will decide final roster spots with specific needs in mind. He will want speed, defense, and versatility. And that won't make for easy or enjoyable conversations when he breaks the news to a couple of contenders who won't crack that final 25-man roster.

The Tigers will take 13 position players north. They have spots cleared for 11 players all but certain to make the team: Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, Andy Dirks, Brayan Pena, and probably Ramon Santiago.

Danny Worth could conceivably beat out Santiago. But Santiago is under contract and Worth has a minor league option remaining, which all but confirms the Tigers' plans there. It leaves two more spots to be decided by Brennan Boesch, Quintin Berry, Don Kelly, and Jeff Kobernus, an acquisition with Rule 5 status, who must either make the 25-man roster and remain for all of 2013 or be offered back to the Nationals.

"I know I've got pieces to mix and match," Leyland said last week, explaining how he and his boss, Dave Dombrowski, with input from the Tigers coaches, will choose those final roster spots. "There aren't many perfect players. It doesn't work that way.

"So, you try and figure which guy can help you win a game."

It's a lock the 12th and 13th players will either be outfielders or will have the flexibility to play outfield. That gives Boesch a shot if he has ironed out his swing and resumes some of his old fence-bashing ways.

Berry can play all three outfield positions and last season stole 21 bases. The Tigers take his candidacy seriously after Berry helped save them in 2012 when Dirks missed 10 weeks with a strained Achilles.

Kelly literally can play anywhere. He can run. He's a player Leyland can plug into a game in any situation and trust. Do not dismiss Kelly as the spring-camp auditions play out.

And then there's Kobernus, 24, a second-round pick by the Nationals in 2009 out of Cal-Berkeley.

Reasons to keep Kobernus

The Tigers view Kobernus as a gift not to be wasted. They got him for $50,000 when the Nationals had too little roster room and exposed him in December's Rule 5 sweepstakes, at which point the Red Sox grabbed him as part of a trade that sent Tigers prospect Justin Henry to Boston.

Kobernus is a modest hitter (.279 in four minor league seasons) and speedster who stole a cumulative 95 bases the past two years. He's a second baseman by trade. But the Tigers believe they can give him a crash course in playing the outfield and thereby justify carrying him and his speed if he plays as the Tigers scouts suggest he can.

There's also an ulterior motive at work here.

It has to do with second base and with Omar Infante's expiring contract. The Tigers develop middle infielders at about the same pace Hooters adds health food to its menu. A year from now, should they have said goodbye to Infante, it will be helpful to have a fast, ready-made second baseman in line.

Not sure how you should bet on these matters, but I might lay at least a five-spot on Kobernus becoming one of the winners in next month's roster runoff.



Tigers' starting pitcher Doug Fister fashions a new look while listening to instructions before practice. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
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