DETROIT -- Don Kelly had to win his job back as a non-roster invite to Tigers camp last year. He won't be doing that this coming spring. Instead, he'll have a chance to make seven figures if he sticks with the club.
On the last day for Major League teams to cut ties with arbitration-eligible players by not offering a contract, the Tigers avoided that fate with Kelly by signing the super utility man to a one-year, $1 million contract for next season. The agreement allowed the Tigers to head through the midnight ET non-tender deadline keeping all eight of their arbitration-eligible players, including starters Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, reliever Al Alburquerque, catcher Alex Avila and outfielders Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks.
Kelly became the second Tigers player to agree to terms ahead of the deadline. Phil Coke agreed to terms two weeks ago, marking a slight change in approach from Detroit as the team weighed the financial implications of its arbitration cases. The eight eligible players were projected to earn as much as $15 million in raises, adding to Detroit's salary.
Kelly was not expected to seek a dramatic increase, but the agreement represents his first seven-figure salary. He made $900,000 in each of the past two seasons, including this year on what was a Minor League contract with a Spring Training invite signed just before camp. Though he had interest from other clubs at the time, he opted to stay with Detroit for a chance to win a World Series.
Interest was expected to be stronger on Kelly after he regained his role as a integral part of Detroit's bench. His 112 appearances marked his third time in four years playing in that many games, and his .652 on-base plus slugging percentage marked the second-highest mark of his six-year Major League career. His six home runs included one off Rangers ace Yu Darvish and two off Cleveland ace Justin Masterson.
Kelly's calling card, however, has been his versatility. If designated hitter is included, Kelly appeared at seven different positions in 2013. He has played every position at some point in his big league career, including an inning of relief pitching and six innings catching in 2011.
Kelly currently stands as a left-handed hitter on the bench of a team that has a righty-heavy lineup in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade. The one factor that could change his role is the positional shuffle around the Tigers' infield and outfield, notably if fellow left-handed hitter Dirks becomes the primary reserve outfielder.
The roster picture, especially in left field and third base, remains a big question, but the Tigers can keep Kelly on the roster and then take a wait-and-see approach in Spring Training. If Detroit decides he's no longer a fit, he can be released by mid-March for one-sixth of his salary, or just under $167,000. If the Tigers release him at the end of camp, they would owe him $250,000. Detroit took a similar approach with Brennan Boesch a year ago.