Andy Dirks, right, pictured with Miguel Cabrera, suffered a knee injury during spring training in March and has never quite been 100 percent since. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — When he slammed into the left-field fence at Joker Marchant Stadium in mid-March, nothing seemed terribly worrisome for Andy Dirks.
He had a “right knee contusion.” In lay terms, a bad bruise. And like a lot of camp’s aches and pains, this was destined to be more of a short-term nuisance than a lingering ailment.
But seven months later, everyone wonders, Dirks included. He wants no part of alibis. But it has been a lousy year for a Tigers outfielder who entered the season with a .292 career average and who proceeded to hit .256, with an off-key OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .686.
The fact is: His knee has never quite been 100 percent. And that invites questions, at least in his mind, about possible offseason surgery or maintenance that might make 2014 more in line with his supposed hitting skills.
“There have been a lot of factors,” said Dirks, who went 3-for-26 to close out the regular season, and who has had five at-bats, all hitless, during the postseason.
In fact, there has been one factor: Dirks has not had a fully functioning right leg since spring. It is one of those classic sports injuries: not serious enough to warrant time on the disabled list, but a mild ailment nonetheless.
“That’s part of being a baseball player,” he said.
In his particular case, which parallels Miguel Cabrera’s lower-body ills, Dirks understands his hitting has probably paid a price.
“You hit with your legs,” said a 27-year-old, left-handed batter who in 2012 hit .322, with a heavy .857 OPS. “But it’s no excuse for why I haven’t been producing.”
Or maybe it explains everything. The Tigers will soon decide if Dirks is part of their plans after they have their internal meetings, which will happen a few days after this season ends.
That their 2013 campaign might end tonight at Fenway Park, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox was a distinct possibility as manager Jim Leyland’s team arrived in Boston early Friday.
Dirks was aboard that Tigers team charter. But, again, there was no indication he was figuring in Leyland’s Game 6 plans against right-handed Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz.
Don Kelly has been Leyland’s choice in left field as the left-handed platoon option, which says everything about Dirks’ hollow production. Kelly hit .222 during the regular season, but was a stronger hitter than Dirks down the stretch and never faded during the Division Series against the A’s when he hit .400. Kelly’s defense and quality arm also made him attractive as a lineup option.
Dirks’ issues also spurred the Tigers to move Jhonny Peralta to left field once he was free from his 50-game suspension for intersecting with the Biogenesis clinic in Coral Gables, Fla., which deals in performance-enhancing drugs.
Peralta has been one of the few productive postseason hitters for the Tigers, which Dirks acknowledges.
“Jhonny has swung the bat good,” Dirks said. “He’s gonna be the one to play.”
Option in question
How all of this affects the long-term plans for the Tigers, and Dirks’ future in Detroit, is yet to be determined. His salary this season is $505,000, and while he is eligible for arbitration, the Tigers won’t be looking at anything overly expensive in a 2014 renewal — if they decide to bring him back.
Nick Castellanos, the rookie who had a September cameo in Detroit, is generally considered a good bet to start in left field next spring. But even if the right-handed hitting Castellanos is the Tigers choice, Dirks seemingly would have a place as a left-handed bat in what potentially could be an all-right-handed hitting outfield.
That is, if Dirks returns.
He was an eighth-round pick in 2008 out of Wichita State, and the Tigers always have considered Dirks an example of how steals can be made in somewhat deeper draft rounds.
He has played a fine left field. And, if the Tigers believe a nagging knee really was at issue in 2013, Dirks easily could be back at Comerica Park, safely filling a roster spot for which he always seemed ideal.
“I know I have a lot of baseball left to play,” Dirks said Thursday as the Tigers got ready for Game 5 of the ALCS, which they lost to the Red Sox, 4-3. “Their opinions (the front office’s) are up to them. There’s question marks, sure.
“I’m just gonna play baseball.”