NEW YORK, NY--(L-R) Don Kelly #32 of the Detroit Tigers is congratlated by teammate Delmon Young #21 after Kelly scored on his solo home run in the top of the first inning agianst the New York Yankees during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
With first Delmon Young and now Magglio Ordoñez out of action with injuries, Jim Leyland is faced with some tough lineup choices.
Six weeks ago, there were four Tiger outfielders of note.
Now, in the Tigers' greatest hour of need, there are three.
Brennan Boesch? He went down at the end of August with a thumb injury.
Delmon Young? He went down Thursday night against the Yankees with a rib-cage injury.
Magglio Ordoñez? He went down Saturday night in Game 1 with a severe ankle injury.
I don't know about you, but if I'm Austin Jackson right now, I'm asking the assistant trainer to encase me in bubble wrap, with holes for my eyes and my nose.
Here's the good news for the Detroit Tigers: Neither Boesch nor Young nor even Magglio Ordonez is particularly essential to the squad's fortunes. This team's stars in 2011 were Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta also played excellently. Jose Valverde, Victor Martinez, and even Outfield Survivor champion Austin Jackson were keys to the Tigers' success as well.
Magglio Ordoñez? Hobbled for most of the season by the same troublesome ankle that's now knocked him out for the rest of the tournament, Ordonez was simply dreadful until a nice little stretch in September ... and that was only 13 games.
Delmon Young? Yeah, he did hit three home runs against the Yankees. Nobody can take that away from him, ever. He also posted a .298 on-base percentage after joining the Tigers in August. Which was actually a real improvement over what he'd been doing with the Twins.
Yes, the Tigers have lost their starting left fielder and their starting right fielder. But the real issue is that they've just lost their right-handed-hitting left fielder and right fielder, which looks like a real problem because three of the Texas Rangers' four starting pitcher in this American League Championship Series throw -- wouldn't you just know it? -- left-handed. The Tigers could have stacked their lineups against C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison with (theoretically) potent right-handed-hitting outfielders. Except now they can't.
But as we've seen, Ordoñez and Young aren't really so potent, are they? Two lines for your consideration, both of them turned in by right-handed-hitting outfielders:
Raburn's older than Young and his best seasons are behind him, while Young's might still be ahead. But is Young a significantly better hitter than Raburn, right now? I am not convinced that he is. Meanwhile, there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that Raburn is a better fielder than Young, right now. While it would be presumptuous of me to question Jim Leyland's wisdom in playing Young instead of Raburn lately, I will argue that if the Tigers are losing anything in this transaction, it's barely worth mentioning. Raburn might not get a big hit in this series, but I'll bet you a nickel he makes a play in left field that Young wouldn't.
So left field's covered. Maybe not well. But it's covered. What about right?
The options at hand seem to be Don Kelly and Andy Dirks, both of whom are left-handed hitters (which is bad) who can't hit (which is worse). This season, they were identically bad hitters. One of them hit .245/.291/.381, the other .251/.296/.401, and it obviously doesn't matter which was which.
You might think Kelly's a young player because might not have noticed him before last week, but he's almost as old as Victor Martinez and his 2011 statistics are a pretty fair representation of his true abilities.
Meanwhile, Dirks is a 25-year-old rookie with solid triple-A numbers in limited action and awful double-A numbers in significant action.
So which of them should play right field in the absence of Señor Ordoñez?
I don't know that it really matters a whole lot, but this is one of the reasons Jim Leyland makes more than $10,000 per game, right? To figure out stuff like this? One thing I'm pretty sure about, though: Kelly and Dirks are both better fielders than Ordoñez.
Before going any farther down this line of inquiry, we should note that with Ordoñez out, the Tigers have an open roster spot, which they have not, as I write this, yet filled. Officially, anyway. The problem is that there's literally no obvious candidate to fill that spot. Oh, they could certainly add a bullpen arm, just so Leyland's got one less thing to fret about as he tries to sleep at night.*
* Do managers sleep in October? At all? It's hard to imagine how they could.
Outfielders, though? Every Detroit Tigers outfielder this season is either on the roster already, out with an injury, or currently employed by the Seattle Mariners.
If we drill a bit deeper, down to the nether regions of the Tigers' 40-man roster -- with Ordonez out of action, they can replace him with anyone on the 40-man roster -- we find one more outfielders: Clete Thomas, who has the singular virtue of some major-league experience, but that seems more than balanced by the facts that 1) he hits left-handed and 2) he can't really hit, against lefties anyway.
Which is simply to suggest that there's no secret weapon here, just waiting to be deployed by Leyland and Dave Dombrowski. What you see is what you're going to get, and what you're going to get in right field isn't likely to be impressive. But that's okay, because the guy they were going to play in right field wasn't likely to be impressive, either. Right field for the Detroit Tigers this month was always going to be a hope and a prayer.
Now it's just a different sort of prayer.
Update! At press time (of course), the Tigers added Delmon Young to their roster, after having omitted him roughly 48 hours earlier. Will he be well enough to start in the outfield? Does this change the above calculus? Raburn still figures to play against the lefties, and Leyland still has to choose between strikingly unattractive options at the other corner outfield spot.