Ramon Santiago Bringing Balance to Tigers’ Defense


It has taken over 120 games, but the Detroit Tigers appear to have settled on a second baseman, at least for now. When the Tigers released their lineup for tonight’s series opener in Tampa, Ramon Santiago‘s name was penciled in for the fifth time in the last six games.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland has a history of changing his mind after making grand statements about how much playing time a given player will receive, you have to look no further than Santiago’s would-be platoon partner, Ryan Raburn, to see the evidence. That Santiago is now seeing the bulk of the duty at second doesn’t mean this will still be the case come next month, next week, or even two days from now. Leyland hasn’t said as much, but it looks like he’s playing the match-ups lately, both offensively and defensively, and that bodes well for the Tigers.

Santiago, a member of the 2003 Tigers that lost 119 games, was traded to Seattle after that season in a deal that brought Carlos Guillen to Detroit. Guillen’s latest injury is what has opened the door for the diminutive switch-hitter to see a serious run of starts this year.

Make no mistake, Leyland has been wary of “overusing” Santiago in the past, citing the idea that he would wear down if given regular at bats. It was that thought that necessitated the regrettable trade for Edgar Renteria in the fall of 2007, one that sent Jair Jurrjens to the Braves.

But with the Tigers making a push towards the playoffs and with Guillen’s injury, Leyland is taking steps he rarely has taken before. Not only is Santiago seeing the lion’s share of the duty at second, but Leyland has gone against his previous trends and is using Wilson Betemit in the strong half of a platoon at third. By coupling Santiago’s starts with Betemit, Leyland is ensuring that his club won’t have to overcome defensive issues at two infield positions on the same night. If he maintains this philosophy, we can expect to see the slick-fielding Brandon Inge man the hot corner versus left handed starters, but he will be paired with Raburn at second.

More than just his defensive prowess, however, Santiago is bringing his bat to the party as well. Over his last 21 plate appearances, Santiago is hitting a robust .389 (7-for-18) and has clubbed two homers and two doubles. This Tigers’ lineup doesn’t need Santiago to carry his weight in order to score runs, especially given that his glove will help immensely, but if he can produce at even a league average rate, the club will be much more complete.

You never know how long it may take for Guillen’s body to recover from any given injury, but if he’s out for an extended period, it’s good to see that Leyland is trusting in Santiago to carry the load at second. As we saw last week, a defense that features both Betemit and Raburn on the infield (not to mention Miguel Cabrera) is a recipe for disaster.

Betemit is going to play as long as he hits and all he’s done since coming to the Tigers is hit. No, seriously, that’s all he’s done. Though he stands near third base and wears a glove, he really hasn’t played a lick of defense. As much as Leyland likes Raburn and believes in his bat, he has to know that his club cannot survive having that many below average defenders on the infield. By coupling Betemit with Santiago and Raburn with Inge, Leyland can effectively balance his defense depending on the matchups.

If we simply look at UZR this season, Raburn is a -5.0 at second base and Inge is exactly average at 0.0 at third. Betemit is -3.9 at third with Detroit while Santiago is -0.7 at second. Simple math tells us that the combination of Betemit and Raburn would allow an amazing number of extra baserunners and extra runs, but if Betemit is paired with Santiago, a better defender at second, the results aren’t near so poor. The same goes for Raburn playing with Inge at third.

Offense certainly plays a major role in determining who gets the bulk of the at bats, but defense counts as well. For a long time I wasn’t sure Leyland realized that, but, for whatever reason, he’s paying attention now.

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