On the day of the Prince Fielder press conference, Detroit Tigers’ Manager Jim Leyland hinted at a left field position battle between Andy Dirks, Clete Thomas, and Don Kelly, with the winner batting 8th in the lineup. The difference for Dirks and Thomas as compared to Kelly is this: Kelly is on the team either way, the other 2 likely will have to win the gig to land on the roster.
Don Kelly is going to remain in his super utility role barring something unforeseen. The Brandon Inge-to-2nd base rumors definitely cloud the left field picture. Should Inge, with his new Mike Barwis-reinforced body, earn the everyday job at 2B, then that pushes Ryan Raburn into more of a left field role.
Regardless, that would likely be little more than a platoon with Dirks or Thomas due to Raburn’s iron clad track record of disappointing 1st half hitting, so the roster spot remains there for the taking.
The good news is whether it is Dirks or Thomas, both players would be a solid upgrade defensively from Delmon Young, who is now slated to DH. While the infield defense will remain a train wreck, having one of these 2 in left, Austin Jackson in center, and Brennan Boesch in right is a speedy, athletic outfield that should represent itself well.
Dirks or Thomas
In 2008 and 2009, Clete Thomas appeared to be on the fast track to having a regular role on the major league club. He hit .284 in 2008, showing good extra-base pop and tremendous defense. In 2009, he hit just .240 in 102 games, battling a long swing. Back then, Jim Leyland projected him to be an everyday player in the big leagues, once he shortened up his swing.
Thomas battled injury much of the 2010 season as he only appeared in 21 games at AAA Toledo. It took him a while to get on track last year, but he finally did with a big 2nd half.
Clete put himself back on the map by hitting .309 in 37 post-All-Star break games. The bugaboo with Thomas is that he strikes out a lot. He K’d 130 times in just 367 at-bats in Toledo last year. He did show off his all-around game though with 20 steals, 12 homers, and 15 doubles.
While both players are strong defensively, Thomas is superior in that department. He has a laser-guided right arm and patrols the outfield extremely well. The bad news for Thomas is that the Tigers clearly haven’t put a premium on defense this offseason.
Meanwhile, Andy Dirks had himself one heck of a 2011 and carried it right through to winter ball. Dirks tore the Eastern League apart while in Toledo by hitting .325, literally doing it all and forcing his way into a call-up.
He had a very strong rookie season. Dirks hit .251 with 7 homers, 28 RBI’s, 13 doubles, and 5 steals in sporadic playing time. His playing style reminded me of Lenny Dykstra. He seems to have the passion, a lot of skill, and plenty of intangibles.
Dirks parlayed his strong Major League season into a legendary Dominican winter league campaign. As is described in this article on Yahoo Sports: In the course of five days, Dirks had the winning hits in Game 9 – yes, Game 9 – of the league finals and in a Caribbean Series game against Venezuela. The Dominicans won the series with ease. He is now known throughout the Dominican as Andy King according to Ramon Santiago and Ondy-Der, the rough translation of his name.
Dirks popped 14 homers between AAA and the majors last year in just 391 at-bats. He also swiped a combined 17 bases. He has the tools to become a 15 homer – 15 steal guy in the majors, something the Tigers haven’t seen since Curtis Granderson left town.
In stark contrast to his counterpart Thomas, Dirks only fanned 64 times on the year in 24 more at-bats. At 26 years old, Dirks is more than 2 full years younger than Thomas as well.
The stars seem to be aligning for Dirks to be the frontrunner for the left field job but don’t count out Clete Thomas. He offers the same alluring combination of speed and power to go along with lock-down defense that has the Tigers looking stronger than usual with their outfield depth.