As Tiger fans continue to react to the shocking free agent acquisition of Prince Fielder, speculation abounds over the 2012 lineup and proposed shift of Miguel Cabrera across the diamond to third base.
It’s not the first time Cabrera has agreed to play the hot corner for the Tigers. When he was acquired via trade in December of 2007, it was planned that he would replace Brandon Inge at third base. Manager Jim Leyland wanted to use Inge as an insurance policy in case catcher Ivan Rodriguez got hurt (which he did) and also as a super utility man. Inge actually started in center field on opening day in 2008. First base, it was planned, would belong to Carlos Guillen, whose mounting injuries were making it difficult for him to be a middle infielder any longer.
Cabrera started the ’08 season at third (hitting a homer in his first game as a Tiger, off Gil Meche of the Kansas City Royals), but after he committed five errors in the first two and a half weeks of the season, Inge was ordered to pick up his third baseman’s glove again. Cabby was moved to first and he’s been there ever since. With great success, of course. In fact, the big guy has turned himself into a solid defensive first baseman. Even though his range is mediocre, he’s adept at scooping up would-be errant throws from his infield teammates. Cabrera is one of the best players in the game, hands down.
With Fielder now on the roster, Cabrera has offered to move back to third, much to the chagrin of Inge, who inexplicably still has a job with the Tigers despite his abysmal offensive production. Miggy probably would rather stick at first, but let’s face it, with the prospect of the left-handed hitting Fielder behind him in the order, he’ll gladly do the team-first thing.
The Detroit infield with the addition of their new Prince, has Fielder at 1B, Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago at 2B, Jhonny Peralta at SS, and Cabrera at 3B. All-Star Alex Avila will be behind the plate. Left to right in the outfield, it appears Leyland will pencil in the names of Delmon Young, Austin Jackson, and Brendan Boesch.
That’s a formidable offensive lineup, and it leaves Inge on the outside. If the longest tenured Tiger was the sort of player who would accept a utility role gracefully (he hasn’t in the past – remember how he scorched the Tigers in the press when he was designated for assignment last year?), he could be a decent bench player. He can play third, has been a big league catcher, can sub in the outfield, and he even has the range and arm to fill in at shortstop. Players who can catch and play almost every other position adequately are rare. They can continue to draw major league paychecks while sitting most of the time on their ass on the bench. Jamie Quirk spent 18 years in that role, and others (Chone Figgins, former Tiger Shane Halter, Mark DeRosa, and Ben Zobrist come to mind, not to mention Tony Phillips) have spent years in the big leagues as role players and super-subs.
But Inge is obviously stubborn and somewhat delusional. He obviously believes he still deserves as full-time job. This despite slugging .376 with a .308 on-base percentage and a .22y batting average over the last FIVE YEARS. He hasn’t been even an average major league third baseman since Todd Jones was closing games out for the Tigers.
But Leyland, who was a marginal professional ballplayer who never made it farther than Double-A ball, has a soft spot for players like Inge. He awards them for things like hustle and sticktoitiveness (that’s the dogged perseverance you often see in professional athletes who have suspect talent). Call it the “Moxie Factor”, something Leyland applies to Andy Dirks and Don Kelly, two role players who unlike Inge, gladly accept their fate as fringe major leaguers.
Leyland admitted that Inge “was not a happy camper” when the manager talked to him following the acquisition of Fielder. But given his terrible performance in recent seasons, how can he complain? The writing is in large letters on the wall. His days are numbered, and he shouldn’t count on owner Mike Ilitch making another personal plea to keep him in a Detroit uniform. Mr. I has just committed over $200 million big ones to one player. Sentimentality can only cover so much.
When the Tigers drafted Inge out of college in 1998 in the second round, they saw him as a catching prospect. Since then, he’s played several roles on the team. In 2012 he may be forced to assume a new role – the role of ex-Tiger.