Tigers Will Sink or Swim with Veteran Infielders


If all goes according to plan, second baseman (is that what we’re calling him now?) Carlos Guillen should return to the Detroit Tigers shortly after the all-star break. What happens then is anyone’s guess.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Guillen will immediately become the Tigers regular second baseman, and given the way Ryan Raburn has performed this year, the change will be welcomed by the fans. The sad fact is that even an aging and offensively slower Guillen should offer a much bigger threat at the plate than Raburn has.

The second base position has been terrible all season, no matter who has been manning the spot. As a unit, the Tigers second-sackers have combined for a line of .233/.294/.316/.610. They have accumulated only 16 extra-base hit from that position, ranking second-worst is doubles with 10 and home runs with five. In fact, the only position where the Tigers have gotten worse production has been at third base where Brandon Inge and Don Kelly have combined for all of two long balls this year. Heck, Tigers pinch-hitters have hit three home runs and done so in only 37 at bats.

Sadly enough, Raburn has actually represented an improvement offensively at second base. In 33 games at second, Raburn has posted a .211/.237/.385/.622 line and has contributed all five of those home runs. And it’s not even as if the hitters at second base have been suffering from poor luck. As a unit, Tigers second basemen have a collective BABiP of .291.

If these decisions were based solely on merit, Danny Worth would be playing second base everyday in Detroit. Instead he gets his at bats in Toledo. Worth posted a .310 average and .734 OPS in Detroit this year, but did so in only 29 at bats. With the Mud Hens, Worth’s line includes a more realistic average of .255 this year, but 18 of his 40 hits have gone for extra-bases, so he’s showing pop he’s never really shown before. At age 25, the former second-round pick could just be coming into his own offensively. But the Tigers, having gone through two minor league second baseman already this year, have decided, for now at least, that they’ll run some veteran hitters out there and see if they can get their ships righted.

There is no question that contract status is coming into play at this point. Raburn signed a two-year deal last offseason (as did Inge) and Guillen is in the final season of his contract, one that pays him $13 million this year.

There is rumor and innuendo swirling that the fate of manager Jim Leyland is tied whether or not his club can make it back to the post-season this year. The same, we’re told, can be said of general manager Dave Dombrowski. As much team performance will be the referendum on the Tigers leadership, so too will be the individual results of guys like Guillen, Raburn, and Inge. For that reason, maybe more than any other, Leyland and Dombrowski must feel like those three guys in particular have a better shot at living up to their expectations than taking a chance on another minor league bat.

Obviously when dealing with Guillen, there are no guarantees that he’ll ever make it back to Detroit, let alone stay healthy long enough to make any sort of a difference. If he can keep himself on the field, the offense should improve measurably. If we assume best-case scenario here, Raburn will be displaced yet again. He’ll move into a utility role where he’ll see some time as an outfielder, some at second base to give Guillen days off, and probably some time at third as well. The days where Raburn and Guillen are both playing infield positions will be ugly defensively, but  as bad as Raburn has been at the plate, he’s been significantly better than anything Inge has offered at the plate.

That said, the offense overall hasn’t been the issue for the Tigers. We learned a hard lesson in 2008 that a bad defensive unit can and will lead to losses. The pitching staff already needs as much help as they can get from their fielders so downgrading the infield defense in order to have a better bat at third would probably lead to more runs allowed.

The Tigers are in a tough spot with this roster as currently constructed. The players they have aren’t likely to fit as perfectly into their roles as the team would like. Raburn isn’t going to play defense as well as a guy like Inge does, but Inge probably won’t hit as much as Raburn is capable of either. Guillen’s bat, even if he’s only average, will put him in the lineup as much as his contract will.

With rumors that the Tigers are searching for pitching and not infield help, Dombrowski and Leyland must feel like these pieces are going to have to produce. For better or worse, they’ve given them the contracts and now their fates are tied to Inge, Guillen, and Raburn.

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