Lakeland, Fla. — Unless a man named Dave Dombrowski has changed habits after 13 years in Detroit, expect the Tigers to add another outfielder in the aftermath of news Andy Dirks will need back surgery.
Dirks will be gone for three months. It leaves the Tigers with a hole in a left-field platoon arrangement that appeared to be in decent shape as Dirks and Rajai Davis took turns against various pitchers.
Dombrowski, the Tigers’ front-office boss, is rapidly reacquainting himself with how injuries mess up plans.
Jose Iglesias has had a second bout with shin splints and is now into week two of recovery. Not reassuring news when a starting shortstop is the infield’s most important defender, although the Tigers believe new orthotics — pads in his shoes — will keep Iglesias from further stressing those lower-leg muscles.
Dirks is another crisis altogether. And while Dombrowski is, for now, content to examine internal candidates, the internal options aren’t terribly comforting.
Who will it be?
Don Kelly is a deft bench player and a roster Crescent wrench. He fits anywhere. He simply is not a player to whom you would entrust regular duty, particularly in left field, which is a definitive offensive position.
Ezequiel Carrera has big-league experience and outfield flexibility and could legitimately be carried on the Tigers’ roster. But there is a reason Carrera was signed in December as a minor-league free agent. He isn’t much of a hitter.
Steve Lombardozzi, the backup player obtained in Dombrowski’s fan-thrilling trade of Doug Fister, can help in left, but only help, and only in select situations.
The Tigers have a couple of potential outfield prospects in Daniel Fields and Tyler Collins who are either destined for Triple A Toledo, or, perhaps in the case of Collins, a return trip to Double A.
They are young and not yet ready for prime time. Fields is the closest and probably will make it to Comerica Park at some point in 2014. For now, he is of no help.
It leaves Dombrowski to do what Dombrowski seems always to be doing: He hunts for replacement parts. He is talking, you can bet, with various general managers. He could be speaking with agents for unsigned players who might be able to provide, at the minimum, 90 days of work that might exceed what he suspects he can get from Kelly, Carrera, or Trevor Crowe, another outfielder with big-league stripes (265 games) who isn’t quite what Dombrowski is seeking.
The challenge is to find an available piece at a time when not many spare parts are being advertised by rival teams. If teams had an over-supply of capable outfielders entering camp, they would have done their best to have dealt one of those surplus soldiers ahead of spring drills.
It is possible Dombrowski will find an upgrade at the end of March when rosters are pared to 25 men and a player who could have, or should have, made a team is now on the market.
He could scour the countryside in advance and discover that same brand of player is waiting for a phone call from a GM who needs help, now.
Juan Pierre comes to mind. For a moment, anyway. Pierre is 36 and played last season for the Marlins, a team that can always use personnel with a heartbeat. He batted .247 and had a .589 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
Those numbers testify to why he’s probably now retired, whether it’s his choice or not.
A better option might be trading for Jordan Schafer, who is back with the Braves after missing the second half of last season with a fractured ankle. Once upon a time he was a hotshot Braves prospect. The hangup, not surprisingly, is his bat didn’t quite cooperate. He played last season for the Braves (returning following a stint with the Astros) and in 94 games batted .247 with a .677 OPS.
He also stole 22 bases, and he plays center field. So, at least from the standpoint of plausibility, a guy like Schafer might fit for a team that needs decent stop-gap assistance until Dirks returns, probably in June. But that’s only if B.J. Upton shows the Braves he can be trusted after a lousy 2013, and even then, Dombrowski’s colleague, Frank Wren, might be in no rush to send Schafer elsewhere.
Some will argue Dirks’ injury is why the Tigers should have made a bid for Shin-Soo Choo or Nelson Cruz or one of the big-bat outfielders available on the past autumn/winter free-agent mart.
In fact, Dirks’ injury won’t lead to any second-guesses on the Tigers front office’s part. A pair of hotshots were ruled out for reasons that made sense then and still make sense. The Tigers are dealing with a $160 million payroll that stretches owner Mike Ilitch’s generous spirit. The Tigers would also have coughed up a first-round draft pick for either Choo or Cruz.
That’s not smart business, not when the platoon pairing of Dirks-Davis looked as if it could work at a sensible price for a team that can’t always write fat checks and lose top draft picks.
It leaves Dombrowski to shop, and ponder, and, probably, to wait. Helpful flesh figures to be available later this month as opposed to earlier. But outfield flesh he will seek, unless a man who is an inveterate shopper decides, improbably, the current cast will do until June and Dirks arrive.