Why Don Kelly is a solid candidate for Detroit Tigers, and different from Brad Ausmus

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers jack-of-all-trades and fan-favorite Don Kelly stepped to the plate in the top of the first inning in the 2011 American League Division Series against the New York Yankees.

Then-manager Jim Leyland put Kelly in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, and his decision resulted in a home run — Kelly’s only one in his 24-game playoff career. Also, Kelly had a memorable walk-off sacrifice fly in Game 2 of the 2012 ALDS against the Oakland Athletics.

But he’s not known for his heroic moments. He played 544 games for the Tigers from 2009-14 as a utility player, making an appearance at every position during his tenure and earning the nickname DKB.

Donnie Kelly Baby thinks of Detroit as a blue-collar city. The mentality helped him flourish in his role.

For subscribers: Jim Leyland says Tigers will have ‘guys waiting in line’ for manager job

It has been four years since Kelly’s playing career ended. The 40-year-old has skyrocketed up the coaching ranks, currently serving as the bench coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

With Ron Gardenhire’s retirement in September, general manager Al Avila is seeking a new manager to lead the Tigers out of the rebuild, and Kelly is a candidate.

[ Tigers managerial search: These are candidates, traits Al Avila is looking at ]

While Avila has a long list of potential managers, these are a few of the top names being considered, according to MLB Network’s Jon Morosi: Kelly, A.J. Hinch, Will Venable, George Lombard, Vance Wilson, Pedro Grifol, Mike Redmond, Marcus Thames and interim manager Lloyd McClendon.

Avila confirmed Friday that Hinch and Alex Cora — both involved in the 2017 Houston Astros cheating scandal — are in the mix. Another is former Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, currently the bench coach for the Baltimore Orioles, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.

George Lombard developed an AL MVP. Should Tigers give him a chance? ]

Why Kelly makes sense

Kelly played for the Pirates in 2007 and the Miami Marlins from 2015-16, but most of his career (six years) was spent in Detroit.

He has rapidly surged up the coaching ranks, beginning as a scout and assistant on the player development staff for the Tigers in February 2017. By September 2017, he was promoted to a major-league scout. And one year later, he became the first base coach for the Astros. In December 2019, Kelly earned the bench coach job with the Pirates.

Three promotions in three years.

Might Kelly make it four in four by snagging Detroit’s managerial vacancy?

“There’s a lot of names on the list right now,” Avila said Oct. 2. “There are guys out there that have managerial experience. There are guys that do not have managerial experience, but there are guys that have coaching experience. I’m not gonna predict anything, but I guess one thing you could eliminate is a guy that played and has absolutely no coaching experience, no managerial experience and goes from being a player directly to a major-league manager. I probably wouldn’t go that way.”

So, Kelly is in play.

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Despite his youth in coaching, he wouldn’t be a repeat of Brad Ausmus, whom the Tigers hired in November 2013 to succeed Leyland. Ausmus’ only prior experience came as a field executive for the San Diego Padres from 2011-13, after his 18-year playing career ended in 2010. He was fired in 2017, finishing his four years with a 314-332 record.

Kelly holds valuable insight into multiple facets of the game, from a scout at the lower levels of the minors to a bench coach. He knows many of the young players within the organization, understands analytics and can evaluate talent.

Plus, a general manager thought he deserved a chance at a managerial job last offseason, so adding the bench coach role to his resume should increase his chances this time around.

Why Kelly doesn’t make sense

Kelly has not been a manager. The Tigers might be looking for someone with managerial experience, hence the interest in Hinch, Cora, Gonzalez and McClendon.

Kelly is respected within the baseball community but has never overseen a clubhouse. The next manager is tasked with completing the rebuild and climbing back into contention for the postseason. That is a big step to take.

Even if the Tigers don’t pick Kelly, don’t rule out his return.

Hinch first met Kelly as the Arizona Diamondbacks manager of minor league operations, when Kelly signed a minor league contract and spent the entire 2008 season with Triple-A Tucson. He was granted free agency at the end of the year.

Hinch and Kelly, however, formed a relationship, leading to Hinch hiring Kelly as his first base coach in 2019 with the Astros.

“He’s extremely relatable to today’s players,” Hinch said in January 2019, “and his energy and his passion and really his expertise. He played every position in the big leagues. He’s as relatable as they come as far as first-year coaches.”

Could they come to Detroit as a combo — Hinch as the manager, Kelly as the bench coach? Kelly has the makings of a manager but probably isn’t the Tigers’ No. 1 option. Yet he can provide worth to the rebuild and would set himself up nicely for the rest of his career by learning from an experienced manager.

Why it makes sense for Tigers to hire A.J. Hinch as next manager ]

That situation assumes Kelly would be willing to leave Pittsburgh, which finished 19-41 this season in Derek Shelton’s first year as manager. If Shelton gets fired down the road, Kelly could be on track to replace him — or Kelly could be out of a job too.

But maybe he can beat out Hinch and the other candidates for the managerial opening in Detroit with his clean record and streak of promotions. 

Regardless of the Tigers’ choice, expect Kelly to finish as a finalist. He has a bright future in the coaching industry.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldThe Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content

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