Detroit Tigers: Andy Dirks Poised for Breakout Season After Superstar Winter

J CookCorrespondent IFebruary 27, 2012

Andy Dirks will look to head Detroit out of Lakeland this season.
Andy Dirks will look to head Detroit out of Lakeland this season.Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Andy Dirks has been an important part of the Tigers organization since being selected by Detroit in the eighth round of the 2008 amateur draft. Throughout his minor league progression, Dirks has shown flashes of timely brilliance at the plate and plenty of defensive prowess in the outfield.

Amidst the winter warmth of a Caribbean climate Dirks became a national hero in the Dominican Republic. Literally, a national hero, dubbed "King Andy" by the happy Dominicans who cheered his triumphs throughout his temporary winter stop off.

His arrival in Lakeland this spring is unlike many of those that veteran players experience. Dirks won't be spending time working out the kinks of a four month hiatus. No, Dirks is ready to play ball. Now.

Dirks played in 78 games last year for the Tigers and finished the season with a .251 batting average. He showed that he has versatility in the outfield, which will also bode well for his chances of making the final cut out of spring training in 2012. His outfield splits last year: 38 games in left, 22 in right and 16 games in center.

During winter ball, Dirks batted .315. The Dominican isn't MLB, but it isn't sandlot either. Dirks was looking for an opportunity to ensure that he'd be Tigers manager Jim Leyland's first utility outfielder option and potential every-few-days DH. That was what winter ball was all about for Dirks, getting ready so there was no doubt he'd make the big league roster this season and head to Detroit in April.

His time in the Dominican this winter was well spent and earned him the admiration of an entire nation following his game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth of the championship game—the stuff little boys imagine on the youth baseball fields all across America. Sure, Dirks did it closer to South America than North America, but the point is he did it.

In the Dominican, that's no easy task.

Baseball in one of the Caribbean's largest territories is not like baseball in America. That's not to say they don't play by the same rules, and the sanctity of the game on the field for the most part remains true. Beyond the foul lines, however, all bets are off.

Baseball in the Dominican is more rock concert (including the scantily clad women) meets national soccer stadium mania. To say it's crazy might be an understatement. They are fanatical about their baseball in the Dominican.

Yet, despite unforeseen off-field fan distractions and the thousands of miles he was away from the familiar confines of Detroit's Comerica Park, Dirks relished in the opportunity to get better this winter—much better.

So, there he stood, a chance to be a hero in a land that didn't know him two months prior. Now, they couldn't get enough of him. "Andy...Andy...Andy," the crowds chanted whenever he came to the plate. Dirks' status in the Dominican relative to that in American wasn't even in the same solar system, much less a different half of the equator.

What's a young kid do with tens of thousands of people and every distraction imaginable when faced with a chance to win it all or go home the goat? He rips a single up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the winning run hugging third base. Game over, championship won. Thank you Andy Dirks.

And did the fans ever thank him, shooting fireworks and pouring onto the field whilst Dirks jumped in excitement and triumph. Stuff straight out of Hollywood. Only this was a land where he didn't even speak the language.

Dirks became pretty accustomed to the Dominican fans noisemaker of choice—the vuvuzela, something most soccer fans are all too familiar with as well. It's a long plastic bellowing horn that, when a unison of thousands are being blown, makes it sound like standing in front of a steam whistle without ear plugs.

Dirks summed up the fervor of Dominican baseball and what its like to play in a country that lives for the game. "They have great fans," Dirks said. "They love the game so much, and they are intense. It is their passion. It is their hobby. It is what everybody talks about. You get a group of people like that together, for a whole country, it gets pretty rowdy, and they get pretty excited about it" (h/t Detroit Free Press).

Dirks, himself, was quiet and modest about his efforts during the winter offseason and kept team success the focus of his perspective, telling Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press, "I hit pretty good, nothing crazy-good. Decent. Down there, it's about winning games." Clearly all the admiration and media attention on his heroics haven't lifted him from his grounded stance on why he played winter ball in the first place. 

A marketing gimmick begging for development: a navy blue vuvuzela with a big Old English D on the rim and "Go Tigers" down the side. For good measure they might as well put ANDY down the other side. His play this winter is sign that he's ready to be that same type of impact player for Leyland and the city of Detroit that he was in the Dominican.