Search is on to replace Dirks in outfield

Tigers could turn to candidates on the roster, or go outside the organization

Search is on to replace Dirks in outfield

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Don Kelly always heads into Spring Training with a bevy of gloves, ready for the different positions he might play in a season -- first base, third base, middle infield and an outfield glove, with a backup at each.

His outfield glove has worn over the past several years, but it's the perfect fit for him.

"You're always looking for that glove," Kelly said.

That outfield glove might be getting some more work over the next few months with Andy Dirks out until June because of back surgery, but Kelly said it won't change his preparation work. The major work will come for Tigers officials, from manager Brad Ausmus to the front office, who have to evaluate whether the answer to their void is in their camp right now -- or if there's a realistic solution on the market worth their time to acquire.

"With Dirks going down for essentially three months, we need somebody to replace that spot on the roster," Ausmus said Wednesday.

For now, they'll be looking at what they have in camp. It was fitting, then, that three candidates for increased playing time filled the outfield spots for Wednesday's game against the Astros at Osceola County Stadium.

Trevor Crowe, a Minor League free agent and former Indians prospect who started 40 games in Houston's outfield last year, got the start in left and went 1-for-4 with a caught stealing and a putout after Ausmus asked around about him, including Astros great Craig Biggio.

Ezequiel Carrera, another Minor League free agent and former Indians prospect, made a pair of highlight catches in center field, diving to rob Jason Castro of a bloop single in shallow center, then battling the sun to catch a high fly ball an inning later. He went 1-for-3 with a run scored.

"He's a good outfielder," Ausmus said before the game. "He can play anywhere. He runs very well, so he brings that speed dynamic. And he's a left-handed bat."

Kelly started in right field and made a running catch at the fence on Astros prospect George Springer's drive. Kelly also singled and scored in the second inning, going from first to third on a nice hit-and-run single, to improve to 5-for-12 so far this spring.

All of them are vying for playing time alongside Rajai Davis, whose planned platoon with Dirks in left is now scuttled. If Davis plays well enough, though, the others could be vying to simply back him up.

Though the Tigers signed Davis primarily for his numbers against left-handed pitching (besides his speed, of course), they could opt to give him some starts against righties and only sit him against the particularly tough matchups. When Davis signed during the winter meetings, Ausmus said left field wouldn't necessarily be a strict left-right platoon, a perceived nod towards Davis' tendency to heat up against all pitchers in stretches.

"My thought process was there are probably some right-handed pitchers that Rajai hits well," Ausmus said. "It doesn't mean every time there's a right-handed pitcher on the mound, I was going to sit Rajai Davis. That was never the case."

Still, even if Davis were to get an uptick in play now, it's tough to envision him playing every day for two months. It's also difficult to envision him on a hitting tear that lasts two months, though his .288 average and .335 on-base percentage last year represented the best first-half numbers of his career.

If this injury happened around midseason, prospects Daniel Fields or Tyler Collins might have gotten a call with a good start at Triple-A Toledo. As it is, however, neither has played above Double-A Erie, and both could use the time.

The Tigers promoted Fields aggressively his first year as a 19-year-old pro in 2010, but he ended up spending the first 2 1/2 years of his pro career at Class A Lakeland, slowly making the learning curve.

"A young guy like that, development's probably more important at this point," Ausmus said. "I don't want to say he's not a candidate, but I'd say that's probably a notch below, just because he's younger and probably needs some more time."

Collins batted .240 with 21 home runs and 122 strikeouts at Erie last year, and while it's rarely useful to make judgments early in Spring Training, he has struck out five times in seven at-bats.

Kelly is certainly familiar, having started 51 games in left over the last four years. His playing time has always come against right-handed pitchers, but he has batted .198 and .220 against righties over the last two seasons. If the Tigers could get his 2011 splits (.250 average, .698 OPS vs. righties), they'd almost certainly take that in a platoon.

Utilityman Steve Lombardozzi, part of the Doug Fister trade, is a switch-hitter with some extra-base power. Even now, though, Ausmus' preference seems to be to keep him in the infield and use outfield flexibility only if needed.

"I still prefer to think of him as an infield guy," Ausmus said, "but Dirks getting hurt, you've got to have a little bit of a safety net."

Both the switch-hitting Crowe and left-handed-hitting Carrera bring baserunning capabilities, especially Carrera. The 30-year-old Crowe's best production in the big leagues came over close to a full season in Cleveland in 2010, batting .251 with a .302 on-base percentage and .634 OPS. He stole 20 bases that year, but he has been in the teens the last couple years in the minors after a 2011 season largely lost to injury.

Between the lack of clear-cut answers and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski's history of being thorough on the scouting front, it would be a shock if the Tigers don't send out evaluators across Florida and Arizona to look at potential options, both for trades and waiver pickups when roster cuts approach.

Much as speculation might wander towards well-known names without set roles, such as the Yankees' Ichiro Suzuki and Boston's Mike Carp, the Tigers would have to weigh how much they'd be willing to give up, and how much salary might they take on for what would amount to a part-time player.

If the Tigers believe they can have a productive Dirks back in June, a major deal would be a surprise. If recovery becomes a longer-term concern, they might have to consider external options. Either way, don't expect much movement until the end of camp.

Until then, they'll be evaluating what they have. And players like Kelly will be preparing like normal.

"It'll sort itself out as Spring Training goes along," Kelly said. "For me, I have to continue doing what I'm doing."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.