For the third time in his career, Detroit Tigers veteran Brandon Ingehas been bumped from a starting position. In each instance, it was his poor offensive performance that prompted the club to bring in his replacement.
In 2008, when Miguel Cabrera was brought in to take over at third, eventually switching places with Carlos Guillen, Inge, it seemed, had other chances to play in the big leagues. He sulked his way throw Spring Training as rumors of a possible deal with the San Francisco Giants swirled. I don’t think it’s irresponsible to assume that Inge would have welcomed such a deal. He simply wanted to play everyday and felt his job was unjustly taken from him.
In three seasons after he was ousted as catcher, Inge posted a combined .770 OPS, showing good power numbers and stellar defense at the hot corner. In 2007, however, his home run total slipped from 27 to 16 and his OPS fell to .688. After a season in a utility role, Inge returned to the lineup in 2009 and got off to a scorching start, one that eventually landed him in his first all-star game. Unfortunately, two bum knees lead to a poor second half as the club wasted a chance at the post season.
But just as was the case in 2004, when there were no guarantees that Inge would even make the team after Pudge Rodriguez came to town, there aren’t many in Motown that figure he offers much value to the roster. There appear to be even fewer outside of Detroit. As a soon-to-be 35-year-old, Inge is facing his third career crossroads this Spring.
With Cabrera once again pushing him off third base and coming off his worst offensive season in a decade, Inge is a very real candidate to be given his outright release by the Tigers during camp. Yesterday, it was announced that he has asked for, and was granted, a chance to compete for the unsettled second base job, a position Inge has never played as a professional; not once in the minor leagues, not once in the majors.
Can he do enough to warrant a roster spot, let alone a starting role? At his age and given how steep his decline has been, I’d say the odds are against it. But Inge has been counted out twice before and twice has come back with strong offensive showings (In fairness, a “strong” season for Inge is not necessarily a strong season for another hitter; simply a marked improvement to league-average or slightly above).
Defensively, I do believe Inge could flourish at second base. His range at third has always been his calling card and while he may have lost a step, he surely still covers more ground than Ryan Raburn does at second, and probably at least as much as Ramon Santiago. Given that Jim Leyland ran the statue-esque Carlos Guillen out to the position as often as possible over the past two years, Inge’s range would certainly be a welcome sight for Tigers pitchers.
Can he hit enough to play? That’s the only real question in my mind. Weaker hitters can be more easily hidden up the middle, where defense is generally valued more. And while Inge’s numbers were near-historically bad last season, it’s not as if his competitors were world-beaters either.
Santiago, for all his late-season starts, still only managed a .311 OBP and .692 OPS last season. Raburn, who also figures into the mix in left field, needed another hot second half just to post a .729 OPS for the season (and sub-.300 OBP); his worst in three years.
There will be those who look at Detroit’s options and begin clamoring for Danny Worth to get a shot at the job, but realistically what is Worth’s ceiling? His bat has never been a strength. He’s a right handed-only version of Santiago (saying things like that can get you released, just ask Will Rhymes) at best.
Inge’s athleticism allowed him to make the transition from collegiate shortstop (and all-conference relief pitcher) to major league catcher. His athleticism allowed him to stay in the major leagues and carve out a career as a versatile third baseman-slash-outfielder. Can his athleticism keep him in the major leagues one more time? Does he still have enough left to make yet another position change and provide enough offense to out-hit his competitors?
It might say more about who he is competing with than it does about Inge, but I certainly wouldn’t count him out. He has to hit to play, to be sure, but he doesn’t have to hit as much as a second baseman as he did at third. If I had to guess right now, I’d bet Inge not only makes the squad, but sees quite a bit of time at second base.