KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Opportunity is knocking for Don Kelly, and the likable Detroit Tigers utility player could be ready to take advantage of it.
Kelly is the most seasoned option to replace Andy Dirks if Detroit manager Brad Ausmus doesn’t end up going strictly with right-handed hitter Rajai Davis and shelving the platoon system. Kelly bats left-handed just like Dirks, who is out until at least June with back surgery scheduled for Monday.
In Wednesday’s 3-0 win over the Houston Astros, Kelly started in right with Trevor Crowe in left. And Kelly continued his strong hitting this spring by going 1-for-3 with a walk and getting robbed of another line-drive hit on a diving catch by All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve.
Leading off the second inning, Kelly pulled a single in the hole on the right side of the infield. He took off on an attempt to steal second, and shortstop Carlos Correa shifted to his left to cover the bag. Jordan Lennerton stroked an opposite-field grounder right where Correa had been positioned for a single, and Kelly scampered to third base before scoring a run.
Kelly has excelled as a utility player in five seasons with Detroit and one with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He has played every position — including a hitless third of an inning as a pitcher. He’s superb defensively — particularly in the outfield and at third base — but hitting has never been a strong suit. Kelly’s a .229 hitter with 23 homers and 88 RBIs in 907 at-bats.
However, Kelly is batting .417 with three doubles and three RBIs after playing in five Grapefruit League games.
"I feel great," said Kelly, who played the last three innings at first base. "I’m in great shape. I’m seeing the ball well and having real good at-bats. And I’m grinding it out."
When asked if he considered Kelly a utility player or super utility player — the latter being the tag Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon pinned on All-Star Ben Zobrist — Ausmus paused for a few seconds.
"A super utility player is one with a bat you have to get in the lineup," said Ausmus.
He left it at that, but was pressed to label Kelly.
"The way he’s batting," Ausmus said, "he might be a super utility player. But Kelly is a valuable, really valuable player, and he has a left-handed bat. Him and (Steve) Lombardozzi are similar that way a lot."
Lombardozzi, a switch-hitter, also plays infield and outfield. Playing Kelly in left would allow Ausmus to continue having a versatile player on the bench who can play almost anywhere, and that also could work in Kelly’s favor in moving into playing time as a semi-regular.
"Hopefully, he does get a chance to play a little more," said 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. "You never know — he might blossom into a real nice player for us and do some big things."
Scherzer, the winner over the Astros, said Kelly will not change his "hard work ethic" regardless of how much he plays.
"Obviously, it’s unfortunate what happened with Andy," Kelly said. "But it is not going to change anything in the way I prepare. I’m going to prepare to play all over the place — wherever Brad wants me."
He said he wouldn’t focus more on outfield play as a result of the left field possibility.
Two players with major league experience that Detroit signed to minor league contracts — Crowe and Ezequiel Carrera — are in contention for an outfield roster spot, according to Ausmus.
Carrera, a left-handed hitter, made two good catches against Houston. He’s hit .251 with two homers and 26 RBIs in 366 at-bats for the Cleveland Indians and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Crowe, a switch-hitter who was a first-round pick in 2005, has hit .240 with one homer and 13 RBIs in 165 at-bats with the Indians and Astros.
Ausmus said he believes Daniel Fields — the outfielder closest to being major-league ready in the organization — hasn’t been eliminated as a candidate. "But development is more important for him," said Ausmus.
Kelly is the best bet if Ausmus is looking to platoon with Davis.
Kelly has never had more than 257 at-bats in one season. I asked him if he ever imagined himself getting 400 or even 500 in one year.
"Yeah, as a competitor you always want to play," he said. "But my role is to be a bench guy, and I’m willing to do anything the team wants me to do."
"I don’t think Ian Kinsler is the type of player who gets distracted easily," Ausmus said.
Asked why he wouldn’t simply have Verlander pitch Friday at Tampa against the New York Yankees, Ausmus said, "It pushes him back a day."
That was a very telling comment in regard to Verlander possibly getting the Opening Day assignment on March 31. If Verlander pitches every fifth day, beginning with Thursday, March 31 will fall on the fifth day after his last Grapefruit League start.