Sorting Out the Tigers Infield Options

In all likelihood, oft-injured second baseman Carlos Guillen will be activated ahead of Friday night’s game for the Detroit Tigers. Guillen, who hasn’t seen a single game of action this year while recovering from microfracture knee surgery, has been traveling through the Tigers farm system on a rehab assignment that figures to have only one game left; Thursday with Toledo.

Once he returns, the hope is that the 35-year-old will be able to find his old form at the plate and find enough strength in his body to make it through the rest of the year healthy enough to contribute. But the Tigers and their fans have seen this movie too many times before; we all cringe at the probable ending.

In his younger days, Guillen was a feared and formidable hitter in the heart of the Tigers’ order. A switch-hitter who flashed 20+ home run power and smooth, consistent stroke that delivered line drives to all parts of the field. But over the past three and a half seasons, Guillen has missed 317 of a possible 579 games. He hasn’t played in more than 113 since 2007 and hasn’t seen even half a season’s worth of time since 2008. Though the Tigers have only 70 games remaining on the schedule, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he is healthy enough to play in more than 50 of those.

The Tigers are a first-place team right now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant deficiencies on the roster. A productive (i.e. healthy) Guillen would go a long way toward resolving one of their issues, but he shouldn’t be counted upon to be the solution long-term. And by long-term, in this case, I’m speaking about only the remainder of the year. He just can’t be counted on to be there.

The Tigers don’t appear to be shopping for infield help, at least not names you would consider as starters. Frankly, they don’t need the likes of Jeff Baker, the Cubs utilityman whom they were linked to last week, as this roster is already chock-full of guys exactly like him. Outside of a surprise major splash made by Dave Dombrowki and company, the team will roll into August and beyond with the likes of Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, and Guillen. And they’ll hope that between the three of them, those players can put together enough offense to help the club win the division.

At first glance, as sideways as it may be, Raburn would appear to be the odd man out with Guillen’s return. Displaced from his starting left field job early in the season, Raburn has been given the bulk of the duties at second base over the past two months. His bat, ever famous for heating up in the second half, was dormant through June, but over his last ten games has shown significant signs of life. In his past 37 at bats (including his 0-for-3, 3 strikeout game on Sunday), Raburn has collected 10 hits and posted a .294/.306/.588/.894 line with six of those hits going for extra-bases. Now, with Guillen’s impending return, Raburn looks to be displaced again.

Inge, on the other hand, has been trending only backward since his return from the disabled list. In 50 trips to the plate over the past 15 games, Inge has managed only four hits posting an embarrassing (by his own admission) line of .087/.143/.130/.273. It’s a pretty neat trick to have a higher OBP than a slugging percentage, but Inge is getting it done.

Defense has always been Inge’s calling card and while his metrics don’t look as good this year as in years past, he’s still better than average at the position. When he’s been used there, utilityman Don Kelly has also provided a good glove, but his offensive numbers, while a big improvement over Inge, don’t come close to matching what Raburn is capable of with the bat.

At some point, probably soon, the Tigers are going to have to decide if the defense provided by Inge and Kelly are more valuable to the club than placing an inadequate defender at third and using Raburn at the hot corner.

The problem facing the Tigers in the immediate future isn’t whether or not to release Inge or to option Raburn, as Matt Snyder of Detroit Jock City suggested they could. The problem is getting any two of the three veterans to consistently offer the club some offense.

Contract status cannot be an issue for the Tigers down the stretch, and I don’t think it will be. Inge and Raburn are signed through next year and Guillen is making $13 million this season. Those contract are guaranteed and the money is owed to the players regardless of their status with the team. There is no reason to release Inge when he can be a useful defensive replacement; they’re going to have to pay him anyway. Having him around beyond this month would also be beneficial (assuming he hits at anywhere close to what he did even last year) when Guillen gets hurt again. It’s bound to happen.

But those contracts guarantee only money, not playing time. That should, and I think will, be determined by figuring out whether or not Guillen can stay on the field and whether or not Raburn can play enough defense at third to get by. If those two things happen, Inge should be relegated to a reserve role not unlike the one he filled in seasons past. His performance on the field thus far has mandated such a demotion.

At this point, I don’t think Inge would argue.

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Tags: Brandon Inge Carlos Guillen Detroit Tigers Don Kelly Ryan Raburn

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