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Tigers have two potential supermen

Tigers have two potential supermen

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Don Kelly plays enough positions that he brought eight fielding gloves with him to Tigers camp, though he estimates he uses only three of them. The other five are newer gloves he's breaking in.

Ryan Raburn came to camp with just an outfielder's glove, but he brought back his infielder's glove and catching mitt once the Tigers signed Johnny Damon. He's now up to five.

It's looking more and more like Raburn and Kelly will get a lot of use out of nearly all their gloves by the time Spring Training is over.

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When Damon became Detroit's left fielder a few days ago, the ripple effects turned Raburn from a part-time outfielder to a utility player again. Manager Jim Leyland is now talking about getting creative to find Raburn at-bats, including potentially giving him time at second and third base this spring, maybe even first, in addition to the three outfield spots. Those are a lot of the same positions that Kelly can play, a big reason Kelly earned a call to the big leagues last summer, and why he remained on the Tigers' 40-man roster all winter.

Both are trying to make an Opening Day roster for the first time in their careers. Raburn is hoping to earn a fourth season with the Tigers and build off a 2009 season in which he played in 113 games. Kelly has played in just 56 Major League games over his nine-year pro career. Playing as many positions as possible and providing a little offensive punch off the bench is their best way to get there.

Super utility players, who can play around the infield and outfield, can be a precious commodity on a club. Traditionally, it's a bigger virtue in the National League, where pinch-hitters are at a premium to bat in the pitcher's spot in the later innings and stay in the game defensively. But they can be valuable, too, in the American League, as Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist, Chicago's Mark Teahen and Kansas City's Willie Bloomquist have shown in recent years.

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It isn't easy for players to do, because it requires a lot of work, and those who can pull it off are hard for teams to find. The Tigers potentially have two. In the end, maybe there's room for both, with Raburn batting from the right side and Kelly from the left. It would be fitting, since both seem to complement each other so well.

The workload involved is huge, and it starts here in Spring Training. When the Tigers began infield defense drills this week, Kelly was moving around the horn, taking grounders at third, then short, then second, then first. Later, he was working out with outfielders and taking fly balls.

It's actually easier in Spring Training, he said, than in the regular season, when there's only so much practice time before games.

"The toughest thing, I think, is preparation," Kelly said. "When you're playing one position, you can focus just solely on one position. But when you start moving around, now you have to start getting your work in at different places -- early work, extra work -- just trying to make sure that you're prepared for every situation.

"So now, when I'm playing almost every position, I've got to make sure. Obviously, you can't hit every single [position], every single base, so I've got to hit the ones that I feel that I need to prepare a little bit more for."

It was an adjustment for Kelly, who came up through the Tigers' Minor League system as a shortstop, then became a utility infielder in the Pirates' and D-backs' systems, then added outfield to his regimen. He put center field on his resume last year at Triple-A Toledo before getting some starts in left field for Detroit last summer.

Had the Tigers held on to beat the Twins in their AL Central tiebreaker last October, Kelly would have been credited with the go-ahead run, having singled and scored in the 12th inning after pinch-running in the 10th. As it is, he's trying to turn his versatility into a big league job.

Leyland sees a comfort level that emerged with him last year.

"Kelly learned how to relax a little bit more," Leyland said Thursday. "That's always tough for young players to learn. He got much better at that last year."

If that sounds familiar, it's some of the same progress people credited Raburn for last year. Leyland sensed early in the season that Raburn was trying to do too much and was nervous about trying to stick in the Majors.

Raburn settled in for a huge season, batting .291 with 16 home runs and 45 RBIs in 291 plate appearances. Leyland doesn't necessarily buy the idea that Raburn could keep that homer ratio going in a full-time role, but he believes it's worth getting Raburn as many at-bats as he can. That's now going to involve several different spots.

"I want to move Raburn around," Leyland said. "I don't want to sit him down at one position, because I don't think that's his role."

Like Leyland, Raburn believes his best position is now the outfield, even though he came through the Tigers' system as a second and third baseman. But he also believes his strength is now his versatility.

"When I saw they signed [Damon], I figured that if I'm going to get at-bats, really, their only option is to move me back to infield, unless other positions don't pan out the way they're hoping," Raburn said. "I can't plan on that. I just have to keep myself prepared for whatever they throw at me."

It's still too early in camp for Leyland to talk about roster decisions, but it's easy to see why versatility is a virtue for the Tigers' bench. With Damon and Carlos Guillen now set to split time at left field and designated hitter, Detroit has four bench spots with which to back up a starting lineup heavy on 30-something veterans and a pair of rookies who have yet to play in a big league game.

Infielder Ramon Santiago is expected to take one of the spots while backing up at shortstop and second base, possibly playing more at second depending on how much Leyland decides to rest rookie Scott Sizemore. Another spot goes to a second catcher, whether it's Alex Avila or Robinzon Diaz.

That leaves two open spots and some decisions for the Tigers to make. In the end, Raburn and Kelly are just trying to strengthen their case to find a way in.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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