By The Numbers: Carlos Guillen

In this ninth episode of BTN, I was a little surprised by just how few significant players ever wore No. 9 for Detroit.  If you haven’t seen the list so far, click the By the Numbers tab at the top of this page, where you will find links to the profiles of each player 1-8.

Trying to find players that wore number nine in Detroit was easy, finding even remotely interesting players not so much.  After digging, I narrowed the list to three, but the choice was obvious.

Pete Fox was an outfielder on the 1935 World Championship team and played eight seasons in Detroit.  His .302 average was nice enough, but he was an alarming 107/164 in stolen base attempts (65% success).  After that, it wasn’t until 1996 that Damion Easley wore No. 9 and became the second player on my list.  Easley was an all-star once in Detroit, but perhaps is best remembered for being the player with the largest salary ever released by the club in 2003.  If not for Carlos Guillen, I may have been telling you all about Skeeter Barnes right now.

Carlos Guillen is the first current (as of this posting) Tiger to crack the BTN list, and for good reason.  The three time all-star has been a key cog in the resurgence of the franchise from the misery of 19 seasons between playoff runs.  Even as trade rumors swirl, Guillen has been penciled in as the Tigers starting left fielder for 2010, and Tiger fans are hopeful that he can stay healthy and put together a solid season.

If it were up to Dave Dombrowski, Guillen likely never would have come to Detroit.  In January of 2004, Guillen was still a Seattle Mariner.  The Tigers were looking to rebound from the worst season in American League history, and they needed a shortstop.  Detroit was in hot pursuitof free agent Rich Aurilia, late of the Giants, who had put together a string of very good seasons batting in front of Barry Bonds.

Guillen had been the starter at short in Seattle for three seasons, but had never lived up to the promise he had when the M’s got him in the Randy Johnson trade of 1998.  Seattle attempted to deal Guillen to Cleveland in exchange for Omar Vizquel, but the deal fell apart when Seattle didn’t like Vizquel’s physical.  The Mariners found their shortstop when Aurilia spurned Dombrowski’s offer and signed in the Northwest, and Guillen was then traded to Detroit for a career minor league infielder in Juan Gonzalez (not that one) and Ramon Santiago (yes, that one).

Immediately, the trade paid dividends for the Tigers.

The Venezuelan born Guillen set career highs in almost every offensive category in 2004 and was selected to his first all-star team.  His .318/.379/.542/.921 put him in the conversation of best offensive shortstops in the league.  Guillen belted 37 doubles, 10 triples, and 20 homers to go along with 97 RBI for the Tigers.  Meanwhile, Aurilia played just 73 disappointing games in Seattle before being traded to San Diego.

The injury bug that had bitten Guillen so many times in the past reared its head again in 2005, as Guillen was limited to just 87 games.  The Tigers struggled to find a consistent lineup with Guillen and Magglio Ordonez both missing significant time.  The Tigers fell apart down the stretch and manager Alan Trammell was fired after the season.  Despite the missed time, Guillen showed continued promise at the plate hitting .320 with an .803 OPS.

2006 brought renewed life for the franchise and a return to health for Guillen.  He played in a career high 153 games for the surprise Tigers, who won the wild card and took home the American League pennant.  Guillenwas a force in the heart of the order.  He set career highs in runs scored (100), doubles (41), and stolen bases (20), while hitting a career best .320 for the second straight year.  Guillen’s bat, along with the Tigers’ starting pitching, helped to take down the Yankees in the ALDS as he hit .571 in that series.  With Guillen a year away from free agency, Dombrowski decided it best to lock up his all-star shortstop, signing him to a four year extension worth $48 million in March of 2007.

The Tigers were poised to continue their assault on the AL that season, and Guillen was going to be a big part of it.  After the World Series loss to St. Louis, the Tigers traded for Yankees’ slugger Gary Sheffield to deepen the lineup.  Sheffield, Ordonez, Guillen, and Pudge Rodriguez formed a scary heart of the order, and the first half of 2007 showed great results.  But the team faded badly in the second half, finishing a distant second to Cleveland.  Guillen made his second all-star team that year, and though his numbers dropped a bit, he still had a very good season.  He played in 150 games for the second straight year, and knocked in 100 runs for the first time.  By the end of the season, however, it had become apparent that Guillen could no longer effectively man the shortstop position.

In all honsty, though, he never really could.  For all his offensive prowess he has shown in Detroit, Guillen’s defense has been average in his best years, poor in his worst.  The situation came to a head in 2007, when the Tigers’ struggles could easily be attributed to a porous defense.  Defensive metrics are known to vary greatly from season to season, but the Tigers felt they couldn’t hope that Guillen’s aging body would rebound to post better numbers than his -13.7 UZR/150 rating of ’07.  Guillen spent some time at first base as the season ended that year and following trades to bring in third baseman Miguel Cabrera and shortstop Edgar Renteria, Guillen was slated to play first in 2008.

That didn’t last long, however, as Cabrera’s defense was much worse than advertised at third.  After just 20 games, Guillen was shifted to third base and Cabrera took over at first.  The Tigers were never in the race that season, and finished last in the division.  Guillen’s knees began to act up throughout the year, and he was limited to just 113 games.  His numbers fell off significantly as well.  He hit just .286 and though he made his third all-star trip, his missed time allowed for the Tigers to recall just how much defense at third base means to team success.  So another move was in order for Guillen.

With the renewed emphasis on defense in Detroit, Brandon Inge took over as the starter at third base for 2009.  For Guillen, that meant moving back to the outfield, where he hadn’t played since the minor leagues.  But Guillen began the year battling an Achilles problem that limited to him to DH-ing for most of the first 24 games of the year.  Guillen’s problem wasn’t getting any better, and his shoulder was hurting as well.  On May 4, the Tigers shut him down.  He was hitting just .200 with no home runs and a .512 OPS at the time.

It would be three months before he returned from his shoulder problems, and even then, the switch hitter could only bat from the left side, and wasn’t healthy enough to play the outfield.  The spark he provided with his bat was a welcome addition to a sagging Tigers offense.  In his first 33 games back, Guillen belted eight home runs and posted a .900 OPS.  As the calendar turned to September, the Tigers began to feel the pressure from the Twins, and Guillen began to struggle.  The Tigers eventually fell to Minnesota and Guillen hit just .222 over the final month of the year.

Even as his shoulder had progressed, manager Jim Leyland used Guillen in a platoon with Ryan Raburn, and frequently lifted Guillen for defense in the latter part of games.  Guillen remained quiet, but his frustration boiled over as soon as the season ended.  He called into question his manager’s use of platoons and of removing star player like himself and Ordonez when the game was still in doubt. Guillen had shifted from short to first to third and then to left, and he was tired of always moving around and of having at bats taken away.

With still two years and $26 million remaining on Guillen’s contract, the Tigers are in a tough situation.  Leyland has stated that Guillen will be the everyday left fielder in 2010, at least so long as he stays healthy.  With him, that’s far from a certainty.  In the past week, rumors that Dombrowski is trying to trade the former all-star have surfaced.  But for now anyway, Carlos Guillen is being counted upon to help get the Tigers back to the post-season.

The book is not yet closed on Guillen’s career with the Tigers.  If Detroit indeed plans to contend again in 2010, Guillen is going to have to be a big part of the success.  The current lineup projects as drastically right handed, and the switch hitting Guillen is the only projected starter that can hit left handed.  If he doesn’t stay on the field, the Tigers could be in more trouble than we think.

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Tags: BTN Carlos Guillen Dave Dombrowski Jim Leyland Pete Fox Rich Aurilia

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