Don Kelly may well be the most valuable spare part in the American League. Reminiscent of Tony Phillips, the Tigers super-utilityman provides excellent versatility to Detroit’s roster, having seen time at seven different positions in his brief big-league career. He is expected to add an eighth this summer, and it is that versatility that makes him an asset. Since breaking in with the Pirates in 2007, Kelly has appeared in 84 games in left field, 30 at first base, 19 at third base, 12 in center field, five in both right field and shortstop, and four at second base.
The left-handed-hitting Kelly can also contribute with the bat. He doesn’t hit well enough to challenge for a starting job, but he did go deep nine times last year in 238 at-bats over 119 games—both career highs—in his second season in Motown.
Jack of All Trades
Tigers first-base coach Tom Brookens, who showed plenty of versatility in his own playing career, is a big fan of what Kelly brings to the table.
“Donnie is one of those guys who is certainly a great utility player,” said Brookens. “You can look at any ballclub that’s ever won a World Series and you’ll probably see a guy like Donnie Kelly. He’s maybe not a star, but he’s a guy who helps you win ballgames. He’s our defensive outfielder when we need him and he’s our third baseman when we need him. He can play just about anywhere.”
“As a club, you’re always looking to have a player like that on your team,” added Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski. “They can fill so many roles for you, and in his situation, being a left-handed hitter is a plus. He can run. He’s a good defensive player at all of the positions he plays. A manager always likes to have a guy like that on his ballclub, because when he makes various moves, whatever they might be, he’s got a guy he can stick into those circumstances.”
In the months to come, one of those circumstances may result in Kelly going behind the plate for the first time.
“This year I’m the emergency catcher for the Tigers,” explained Kelly. “Hopefully we won’t have to do that, because somebody would probably have to get hurt and we don’t want that to happen, but if it does, I’ll be ready. The way I can best help the team is being able to bounce around and play different spots.”
According to Jim Leyland, “emergency catcher” is an accurate description. While Kelly is adding the tools of ignorance to his résumé, he won’t be utilizing them very often.
“First of all, it’s going to real limited,” explained the Tigers skipper. “It’s more of an emergency thing than anything else. If we have a situation where something happens to a catcher, he would not be our backup. We’d get another guy. He can catch the ball and he has a good arm, but we don’t expect him to be a regular catcher back there. In that scenario, we just want him to catch the ball and throw it back to the pitcher. We’re not trying to make a catcher out of him.”
Not Just a Glove
Kelly has developed into more than just a versatile defender. A .288 career hitter in the minors, he had a breakthrough season in 2009, winning the International League batting title with a .331 average and putting up a .404 on-base percentage. His .244 average in Detroit last year wasn‘t impressive, but his power surge was.
“Donnie had a tremendous year for us,” said Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. “For a guy to come off the bench and be able to hit nine home runs, and drive in some big runs for us, it was pretty special in my opinion. Being a bench player and playing sparingly—and still producing—is the hardest thing to do in baseball. As an everyday player you can find your groove, but in Donnie’s case he has had to work extra hard.”
“I’ve worked hard to become a better hitter, both physically and mentally,” concurred Kelly. “My approach has changed a lot. I’ve made a lot of adjustments that have really helped my offensive game. At first, [coming off the bench] was a big adjustment for me. Being an everyday player in the minor leagues and then having to be a part-time guy, you have to get into a good routine and know how to prepare yourself every single day for that role. I‘ve learned how to do that.”
Second Time Around
Kelly’s super-sub role has come in his second stint with the organization. Originally drafted by the Tigers in 2001, the Point Park [PA] College product subsequently had one-year stints in the Pirates and Diamondbacks systems before returning in January 2009.
“He was a minor-league free agent when he left [in November 2006],” explained Dombrowski. “It was just a situation where we had to make a decision as far as protection was concerned. I remember that we tried to re-sign him at that particular time, but he thought it was better to take the new opportunity. We still had interest in him, he did well, and we ended up re-signing him. He then made our ballclub.”
Kelly’s roster spot is secure, but he doesn’t like to think of it that way. Having grown up in blue collar Pennsylvania, and then spending most of nine years in the minor leagues, he takes nothing for granted.
“I don’t know if that‘s the right word,” said Kelly, when asked if he considers himself to be established. “You’re always going out there and trying to improve your game in any way you can to stick in the big leagues. You can’t sit back and rest on your laurels and think that you’ve made it. I have to keep working hard and doing everything I can to help the team win. That‘s my job here.”
According to Brookens, that is exactly what makes Kelly invaluable.
“He gives Jim tremendous flexibility to do a lot of things,“ said Brookens. “Every club has to have role players and he’s one of the best role players I’ve seen in baseball. Donnie’s value is tremendous to our team.”