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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

TIGERS PREVIEW: Position-by-position — Bench

(Don Kelly, IF/OF; Ramon Santiago, IF; Brayan Pena, C; Matt Tuiasosopo, IF/OF)

A non-roster invitee who’d emailed the Tigers to get an opportunity, Matt Tuiasosopo (pictured above) ended up being the surprise of spring camp, winning the job over a slew of competitors as the right-handed hitting fourth outfielder to complement Andy Dirks in left field.

He won the steep competition — which included incumbents Quintin Berry and Brennan Boesch, star prospects Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia and Rule 5 draft acquisition Jeff Kobernus — by ripping up opposing pitching, once he got comfortable. After a cold start to the spring (0-for-14 with eight strikeouts) following his son’s complication-filled birth in mid-February, Tuiasosopo hit .370 with power (four home runs, six doubles) the rest of the way.

The former third-round pick of the Mariners had spent parts of three seasons in Seattle, posting a .176 average in just under 200 career at-bats, before spending the last two seasons at the Triple-A level.

“He’s a player. His spring — he’s been unconscious this spring, and he’s showed that he’s got the maturity level to go out there and get it done,” teammate Phil Coke said on MLB Network Radio’s “Inside Pitch” show. “He’s been around game long enough to know what he’s doing.”

Tuiasosopo will primarily be in left field, he could play either corner infield or outfield position, if needed.

Don Kelly is no stranger to the Tigers roster, having spent the last four seasons in Detroit, but there were several times in the past year where it looked like there might not be a fifth. The ultra-utility player — he’s the only active MLB player to have lined up at all nine positions, including pitcher — was designated for assignment midseason last year, but decided to return to the organization and hope he’d get called up.

He was called up just before the start of September, and made the playoff roster, getting the walk-off sacrifice fly to win Game 2 of the American League Division Series.

“This is why you play the game. This is what you dream about as a kid,” Kelly said. “This is unbelievable. It’s a long road to get to the big leagues,” he said before the World Series. “You’ve got to keep battling. This is why you do it.”

It continued to be a battle for Kelly, though, as he was removed from the roster after the World Series, making him a free agent. After looking around, the 33-year-old Kelly decided to return to the Tigers again, signing a minor-league deal, with an out clause, should he not make the Opening Day roster.

A spring in which he hit .320 and tied for the team lead in home runs (four) — and the knowledge that he can comfortably play defense almost anywhere on the diamaond — ensured that he did make the roster, finding out he’d narrowly edged out Quintin Berry in the final week of camp.

“This is home,” he told reporters after learning the news.

Despite having spent all but 27 games in his 11-year career with Detroit, Ramon Santiago flirted with leaving the Tigers after 2011, looking for a full-time gig somewhere. When he didn’t find one, he came back to the Tigers as their key reserve, signing a two-year, $4.2-million contract for 2012-13.

That didn’t look like so much of a bargain when, after skipping his usual winter ball stint in the offseason, he hit just .206 in the first year of the deal. The organization urged him to play this winter, and he feels like it helped, even if his spring wasn’t exceptional.

“Yeah, it’s a positive thing for me, because, like I don’t play every day here. There, at least I get 150 at-bats, and really work through, facing live pitching,” he said. “It’s worked pretty good for me the last couple of years, and last year, I don’t do it, and I don’t do too good that year.”

Santiago narrowly beat out Danny Worth for the final spot on the roster, a decision that may have been based as much on economics (Santiago’s contract, Worth still having an option year left) as performance.

The switch-hitting Brayan Pena will back up Alex Avila behind the plate (although Victor Martinez may end up pre-empting that duty during interleague series), replacing the departed Gerald Laird. Pena’s coming off a season where he recorded a career-high 25 RBI in a reserve role in Kansas City, and his .265 average and .645 OPS against left-handed pitching last season will come in handy when Avila gets a rest against tough lefties this year.

He’s caught 30 percent of would-be base stealers in his seven-year big league career, and his presence gives the Tigers’ top catching prospect, Bryan Holaday, another year of seasoning at Triple-A Toledo.


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