LAKELAND, Fla. — Jeff Kobernus could very well be the most interesting position player to keep tabs on when Grapefruit League games begin Friday for the Tigers.
The Tigers obtained Kobernus — a speedy infielder who is reacquainting himself with the outfield — in a trade with the Boston Red Sox, who made him a Rule 5 draft selection out of the Washington Nationals organization in December. Kobernus’ Rule 5 status remains, which means Detroit must either carry him on its roster the entire season or he will return to the Nationals.
Kobernus hit a one-hop shot Sunday afternoon in batting practice that tore the glove off Bruce Rondon, the rookie flame-thrower with a chance to be the closer. Rondon was unharmed, and he turned to pick up the glove before turning back and smiling.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t hit him,” Kobernus said with a grin. “I’d have been released.”
But that liner isn’t the reason Kobernus is a player to track this spring. Before the practice, I asked Leyland if he had seen enough of Kobernus to make an evaluation. His answer was intriguing.
“It’s interesting that you bring that up because we were just talking about him with the coaching staff,” Leyland said. “We’re going to work him some in left field. We’ve had good reports on him as a second baseman, but unless something drastic happens he is not going to be our second baseman.”
Omar Infante has that position nailed down.
“But with the legs (Kobernus) has,” Leyland continued, “we’re going to work him in left field some and see how he does. I’m reluctant to talk too much because people will get carried away, but he’ll get every possible look. He’s an interesting guy.”
Kobernus was Washington’s second-round pick in 2009, and led the Class A Potomac League with 53 steals in 2011 and the Double-A Eastern League with 42 steals in 2012. He was thrown out only 19 times in those two years combined for a .833 success rate.
“They tell me he can fly,” Leyland said.
Kobernus hasn’t displayed much power, but batted .282 in 2012 for Double-A Harrisburg in a season shortened to 82 games by a left rib cage fracture suffered when he was hit by a pitch. The right-handed batter hit .319 against left-handers and a decent .268 against right-handers.
Making the jump from Double-A to the majors is hardly unprecedented, but doesn’t happen often. Still, Kobernus is attractive to the Tigers for the one thing he already has nailed — stealing and running the bases. Now if he can hit over .275, Kobernus could develop into more than a bench player someday.
“You’ve got 11 guys who are on this team,” Leyland said, “and you can probably figure out who they are. That leaves you two spots (for position players), and how you manipulate that is pretty important. And that’s what this (spring training) is for. He’s going to get every opportunity to show what he can do.
“You know you probably have to run for Victor (Martinez) late in games, and we’ve got a left-handed hitter who can do that (outfielder Quintin Berry). You know Berry can steal bases in the major leagues; he’s proven that.”
Berry was 21-for-21 on steals as a rookie in 2012, and is very much in the running for one of those two open roster spots.
Now, Leyland is wondering if Kobernus could either fill that pinch-running need or become versatile enough to be valuable.
Kobernus played shortstop in high school and moved to left field and center field as a freshman at Cal-Berkeley. Then he moved to second, third and short his last two college seasons. He was an All-Pac-10 selection after batting .341 with eight home runs and 40 RBIs as a junior, and the Nationals developed him as a second baseman.
“I’ve kept myself versatile for if an opportunity like this came up,” Kobernus said. “I’m really excited about this chance to play for Detroit and to play at the highest level. It’s exciting and motivating to play for a team that was just in the World Series.”
Tigers All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder stopped by his locker to joke for a minute and Kobernus smiled.
“The guys have made me feel real comfortable here,” he said. “It’s been a smooth transition.”
Kobernus has tattoos covering every inch from his wrists to his shoulders, and each one has “a special meaning to me.” Tattooed on the inside of his right forearm is his grandfather, Fritz Starr, done from a photo taken when he was a Marine in World War II.
“He passed away a little over a year ago,” Kobernus said, “and he was a big baseball fan.”
Kobernus excused himself from the conversation because practice was about to start and he wanted to be a bit early. Making a good first impression is the first step to making the team.