Dirks begins rehab assignment on high note

DETROIT -- Three months after Andy Dirks played in his last game, an early Spring Training contest before he was diagnosed as needing back surgery, the Tigers outfielder is finally back to game action. Dirks headed out on a Minor League rehab assignment Tuesday, beginning at Class A Lakeland.

Dirks went 1-for-3 with a single and two runs scored, testing his legs by scoring from first base on a triple his final time on the bases. Essentially, he is picking up where he left off in the spring.

"This is his Spring Training," head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Tuesday.

Dirks will progress from there until he's playing in full games before eventually moving up to Triple-A Toledo. That won't happen any sooner than late next week, because the Florida State League will include games over the All-Star break, while Toledo's schedule will not.

When Dirks underwent back surgery March 10, the original timetable projected his recovery to take about 12 weeks. His return has been slower than that, delayed at times because of discomfort he felt while moving around.

Dirks played in four early Spring Training games before his back problems worsened. That lack of work means this probably isn't going to be a quick stint to just his timing back at the plate. He can stay on rehab for up to 20 days, which would take him up toward the end of July if he needs the entire assignment.

"We'll kind of evaluate him daily as far as where we think he needs to go," Rand said, "but the important thing is getting him his at-bats and as close to 20 games as we possibly can."

Dirks still has Minor League options, too, if he needs more time than that.

If he gets through it and comes back, the Tigers gain a potentially valuable left-handed bat for their outfield, something they currently don't have. Though Dirks' 2013 numbers were disappointing (.256 average, nine home runs, 37 RBIs, .686 OPS in 484 plate appearances), he was expected to be in line for a bounce-back year this season before the back issues hit.

How the Tigers fit Dirks into their outfield picture is probably a question better answered later. J.D. Martinez continues to drill the ball well. Torii Hunter is showing signs of better swings. Rajai Davis is off to a good start in July after struggling through June and Austin Jackson continues to be up and down.

While Victor Martinez's back issues have allowed the Tigers to play all four in the same lineup for most of the past week, the odd man has been utility man Don Kelly, despite his standing as the only left-handed hitter in the bunch. However, there's a risk in taking Kelly off the roster, because it leaves shortstop Andrew Romine backing up Nick Castellanos at third base.

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