Brandon Inge spent most of season last year changing positions and waiting for a trade. Following the blockbuster deal that brought Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit after the 2007 season, and the move to bring Edgar Renteria to Detroit, the 2008 Tigers infield was set. Carlos Guillen was shifting from shortstop to firstbase, Cabrera was to be the everyday third baseman. That left the slick-fielding Inge, who had been the team’s third baseman, as a man without a position.
Inge, a converted catcher, had become the regular third baseman in 2005 and during the next three seasons, the Tigers watched his defense grow, and his offense become respectable. He had a banner season in 2006, when he hit 27 home runs, mainly from the ninth spot in the order. But his offense lagged in 2007, and the Tigers’ brass felt an offensive upgrade was necessary headed into 2008. Speculation of a trade that would send him to a team where he could start ran rampant throughout the off-season and spring training, but nothing materialized, leaving an unhappy Inge back in the utility role he held in 2004.
2008 was a forgettable season in Motown, as the Tigers, picked by many as a team primed to win the world series, stumbled to an 0-7 start and never really contended in the Central, finishing dead last. A spring training injury to Curtis Granderson meant Inge would begin the season as the center fielder. But when Granderson returned to the lineup, Inge returned to the bench. With the Tigers’ season slipping away, the team traded catcher Ivan Rodriguez to the Yankees at the deadline and installed Inge as the new starting catcher, a role he had held before Rodriguez had arrived in Detroit. Still, Inge yearned to play third, and as had been the case in his first stint as the Tigers’ backstop, his offense struggled. Near the end of the season, manager Jim Leyland announced plans to change the look of the team for ’09: In an effort to emphasize defense, Carlos Guillen would be moved to left field, and Brandon Inge would be going home to third base. Everyday. The only question was could Inge hit well enough to keep the position?
Inge, who was the Tigers’ second round draft pick in 1998, came into 2009 like a man on a mission. Armed with the confidence of a full-time job and a new stance at the plate, his offensive numbers have surged this season. Through 40 games, he is carrying a .279 AVG, with a team high 12 HR and 31RBI to go along with a .965 OPS (baseball-reference). His defensive play has also been nothing short of spectacular. Inge leads the majors in the unofficial stat of “web gems“, as tracked by ESPN.com. His play in the field has greatly contributed to the turn around of the Tigers’ pitching staff, as he turns doubles in to outs on a seemingly nightly basis. He simply makes plays that no other third baseman can make. His range and athleticism allows him to get to balls that even the best at the position just cannot. His play at the dish has more than made up for the poor starts of would-be run producers Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, and has helped vault the Motor City Kitties into first-place in the Central.
The American League has several worthy contenders for a spot as a third baseman on the All-Star team this season, and Rays’ manager Joe Maddon will have a tough time picking his reserves. Evan Longoria leads the AL in RBI, Alex Rodriguez has returned from injury and should garner the votes needed to start the game, and Micheal Young is having another strong season in Texas. But in a season where the Tigers figure to have at least a few all-stars, Brandon Inge should not be overlooked. He won’t get the fans’ vote to start the game, but Maddon should make sure Inge makes the team. This is the season that he has finally put it all together. He changes games on defense, and this season, he changes games on offense as well.