Every team has it interesting spring training races to watch, and in the AL Central that's no different. In Minnesota, there are six starters fighting for five spots and bullpen full of holes after the team jettisoned essentially their entire bullpen this past off season. Kansas City has a youngster (or three) that should have every veteran on their toes. The Indians are trying to figure out how to fill third base and with all the outfield injuries, there is room for someone who wants to step up there.
The White Sox technically have some battles, but for all intents and purposes, they know who their 25 guys are (or at least I feel pretty comfortable naming the 25 guys I think they'll take north with them).
For the Tigers, the biggest fight is in the outfield. The team seems committed to the three players who will start: Ryan Raburn in left, Austin Jackson in center, and Magglio Ordonez in right. But who will back those three up remains to be seen. One option will be utilityman Don Kelly, who Manager Jim Leyland has already said will make the team. Kelly can back up any of the three spots, and is a capable defender with plus range.
The Tigers however would still like someone who can help on offense.
The easy answer and front runner in my opinion, is Brennan Boesch. Last week I did a somewhat lengthy profile on what to expect from Boesch in 2011, and to summarize, it was a lot less offense than the team got from him in 2010. Still, Boesch was a monster vs righties in 2010, and not matter how much his offense falls off in 2011, he should remain strong against them in 2011. Though defensive metrics rated Boesch poorly in right field (-16.7 UZR/150), they liked him in left (+6.0 UZR/150) and on balance, I think he's a league average defensive player in an outfield corner. He also has the aforementioned ability to hit righties well, and in a lineup that features a lot of right-handed thump, but little from the left side of the plate, Boesch makes a good pairing.
For all the sense that Boesch makes however, the Tigers have other intriguing candidates. One of those is Casper Wells who came on strong for the Tigers down the stretch last year as Boesch's bat vanished. In 99 plate appearances Wells would hit .323/.364/.538 for a .901 OPS. Of course, much like Boesch and Jackson, Wells was the beneficiary of an absurdly high .371 BABIP. Though his career got off to a slow start, Wells started hitting in 2007 and hasn't stopped since, and now owns a solid career .829 OPS in the Minors.
While him performing to the same extent that he did last year is every bit as unrealistic as it is for either Boesch or Jackson, he's probably a better long-term bet than Boesch who, though being a year younger, had really only hit in one season prior to last year. Wells' strong and consistent Minor League performance makes him a safe bet to be a .780-.800 OPS type of bat at some point in the near future. On defense, he played mostly right field, which is probably for the best since his range isn't great. Still he played well and should be a capable option there going forward.
The team also has Clete Thomas who has seen action for the past few seasons. I like Thomas and I think he brings a plus makeup and attitude to the game, but he's primarily a defense first player who won' give you much with the bat. The problem is, at least according to the advanced defensive metrics, his defense isn't that great either. On the plus side, he is well liked by Leyland for what he brings to the clubhouse and what he does defensively. While I don't doubt that he'll see more time in 2011, he also does bring anything to the team that they can't find in other players. Seeing him head north would be a long shot.
Lastly you have Andy Dirks. Dirks has toiled away in relative obscurity since being an 8th round pick back in 2008, but he brings a solid, well-rounded game. He can hit for some average, isn't totally averse to taking a walk, and has some pop. He also doesn't strikeout at an alarming rate like Boesch does. Most importantly however, he has absolutely raked during spring training, and playing well in front of the Manager of the big league club never does anything but help your case. Unfortunately the combination of having just 93 AAA plate appearances combined with the fact that he isn't on the 40-man roster significantly hinders the likelihood of him making the squad.
The Tigers have plenty of options which is a good thing, and in all likelihood, most of these players will see action at some point in 2011. But if I had to pick one player right now, I'd go with Boesch. I think he brings more dynamics to the team than any of the other options.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.