If you want to rank the greatest shortstops in the history of the Detroit Tigers, you start with Alan Trammell. There’s no real debate about him being number one.
Then the discussion has to include longtime Detroit mainstays Donie Bush and Billy Rogell, who played so long ago that hardly anyone remains who saw either dust their mitts with infield dirt.
It’s necessary and prudent to toss in Harvey Kuenn, a fella whose name is rarely mentioned without the accompanying phrase “hard-hitting.” While Ol’ Harv wasn’t a wizard with the glove, he nrarely met a fastball he couldn’t square up on.
Also included in that second tier of Detroit shortstops should be a ballplayer who came to the Tigers without much fanfare and fairly anonymously in one of the more lopsided deals to favor the club. I’m speaking of Carlos Guillén, a likable team leader who came to Detroit and established himself as a dangerous hitter and capable infielder in eight seasons wearing the Old English D.
While others got much of the attention, Guillén was quietly turning himself into an All-Star shortstop when Detroit became relevant again a decade ago as the Leyland Era began. It’s not hyperbole to say that without the clutch performance of Guillén the Tigers could not have navigated their way to the pennant in 2006. That autumn, while the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan were falling in love with the team, Guillén supplied several key hits under the hot lights of the postseason.
Guillén was born in Maracay, a city in the north of Venezuela and one of the most important cities in that country. Guillén came from a middle class family and did not struggle as much as some other young ballplayers who came out of Latin America. In 1992, the 17-year old opened eyes with his play in his native country and a scout for the Houston Astros signed him to a contract as an undrafted amateur player. The Astros allowed him to continue his education and his amateur career in Venezuela for two more seasons, then Guillén was assigned to Houston’s rookie league team in 1995. On that club he was a teammate of Freddy Garcia, a fellow Venezuelan who would become one of Carlos’s best friends in baseball.
As a young player learning to play the professional game in the Astros system, Guillén was notable for two reasons. First, he arrived in the United States at the age of 19 with a lot of baby fat still on his frame. In his first few seasons, the infielder was listed at well over 215 pounds. His cheeks were chunky and he looked to many of his teammates as if he was more of a batboy than a ballplayer. But the second reason Guillén stood out canceled any doubts of his belonging: he could hit the baseball very hard. His manager at one of his early stops was Jim Pankovits, who was impressed with young Carlos.
“I tell all my coaches to stay away from his swing, don’t mess with it,” Pankovits said. “He’s got a nice easy swing from both sides [of the plate].”
Carlos was in his fourth year in the Houston organization when his life, and that of his best buddy, was jolted. The Astros were in the middle of a dogfight for a playoff spot and needed pitching for the stretch run, so they went all out and got a big name. Guillén and his friend Garcia were packaged in a trade that brought Randy Johnson to the Astros from Seattle.
Having only known the Houston system, Guillén found himself suddenly a member of the Mariners organization. He impressed his new team enough that he earned a September call up to the big leagues. It was what baseball men used to call “a cup of coffee.” In his first major league game, Guillén started at second base at the Kingdome in Seattle. His nerves might have been working in his first at-bat when he struck out against Mike Mussina, but two trips later his lined a ball deep to the right of the second baseman that was fielded on one hop. No throw could be made and Carlos crossed first base with his first MLB hit, also recording an RBI.
In his first few years with the Mariners, the club wasn’t sure where the young infielder fit in. Guillén saw time at third base, second, and his natural position of shortstop while in the Seattle minor league system. Alex Rodriguez was entrenched at short however, so Guillén’s path was blocked there.
The M’s may not have known where to plug in Carlos, but he had a strong preference. Venezuela has a long history of excellent shortstops, going back to Chico Carrasquel in the 1950s. Others followed: Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, Davey Concepcion, Ozzie Guillén, and Omar Vizquel, who was an All-Star in the American League when Carlos debuted.
In 2001 ARod bolted Seattle for a lucrative free agent deal and the Mariners handed Guillén the shortstop job in what turned out to be an historic season for the club. Seattle won 116 games, tying the major league record. The season was pretty amazing considering the team had lost the services of Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. in the previous two seasons. Guillén drew praise for his steady play in the field, while his offensive game was coming along. At that point in his career, the 25-year old was a much better hitter from the right side than he was from the left.
The transformative moment in Guillén’s career came a month before spring training in 2004. The Tigers acquired Guillén for Ramon Santiago and a minor leaguer. It proved to be one of Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski’s famous heists. In Detroit, Guillén blossomed into an All-Star.
The Mariners had a new GM that year, Bill Bavasi, son of former baseball executive Buzzie Bavasi. In this case, the fruit did fall far from the tree. Bavasi signed free agent shortstop Rich Aurilia the same day he shipped Guillén to the Tigers. Bavasi wanted a veteran shortstop and more power from that position. The 32-year old Aurilia seemed to fit the bill: he’d hit as many as 37 homers in a season for the Giants. But trading out Guillén for Aurilia was one of the younger Bavasi’s biggest blunders.
Guillén was arriving in Detroit just as the team was trying to rebound from the dreadful embarrassment of the ’03 season when they lost 119 games. After years of spending on his hockey team, Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch opened his wallet for baseball money and signed All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez. There was some buzz in Lakeland for training camp for a change after Pudge inked his deal. But few people paid much attention to Guillén.
That changed pretty quickly. In his first month as a Tiger, Guillén hit .309 with 14 runs batted in in 22 games. In May he stepped it up, hitting .343 with a new power stroke: he belted 14 extra-base hits that month, including four triples and four homers. Thanks to his quick start (he was hitting .324 with 13 homers, 65 RBIS, and 107 hits at the All-Star break), Guillén became an instant fan favorite. Pudge got all the headlines, but Carlos was showing on the field that he was going to be a force on the team.
The switch-hitter was an All-Star in his first season in a Tigers’ uniform when he slugged 20 homers and batted .318 for the season, the highest mark by a Detroit shortstop since Alan Trammell was manning the position. The following year he was hitting over .350 in May when he got hurt and missed nearly a month. He suffered another setback in the late summer and as a result only appeared in 87 games in 2005. But Guillén hit .320 with good power again.
He followed up his injury-marred 2005 season with his best professional year in 2006. That season the Tigers got off to a hot start under new manager Jim Leyland, who quickly learned to love his shortstop. Guillén hit 19 home runs and was red-hot down the stretch, hitting close to .350 in the second half. But his best and most important performances in ’06 were yet to come.
The Tigers entered the playoffs as a wild card team, making their first postseason appearance in almost twenty years. They lost Game One of the AL Division Series to the Yankees, a team favored to beat them. In Game Two, the Tigers were facing Mike Mussina at Yankee Stadium and fell behind 3-1. Here was the same pitcher Guillén had faced in his very first major league game back in 1998. Both were in different uniforms, but the stakes were much higher. In the sixth, Mussina tried to sneak a fastball past Carlos but Guillén swung and sent a home run into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium to tie the game. Detroit held on for a 4-3 win to tie the series. In the Motor City over the next two games, Guillén had five hits and the Tigers defeated the Yanks to advance to the ALCS. In all, Carlos produced eight hits, four for extra bases, in the series win over New York. Detroit would not lose another game on their way to capturing the pennant. When Magglio Ordonez blasted a home run to win Game Four of the ALCS and the pennant at Comerica Park, Guillén was one of the first teammates to put a bear hug on him as the crowd went crazy.
In the World Series, a similar script played out as the team lost Game One to St. Louis. In the second game in the first inning, Guillén stroked a run-scoring double for a critical run in the 3-1 Detroit victory. Unfortunately it was their only win in the Fall Classic. But Guillén had three hits in that game and six in the World Series. Overall he batted .353 in the World Series and .362 in the postseason in 2006 for the Tigers. He knew how to rise to the occasion.
Guillén finished tenth in AL Most Valuable Player voting in 2006 and was an All-Star in 2007 and again in 2008 for the Tigers. In ’07 he topped 100 runs batted in, becoming the second Detroit shortstop to do that, the other being Trammell.
As part of a core group that included Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, and Placido Polanco, Guillén was one of the team leaders on the Tigers as they established themselves as a legitimate contender every year and laid the groundwork for the 2011-2014 run of four straight division titles. With many Latin stars during this era, the Tigers became a popular destination for players born south of the border.
“This is a team everybody’s watching in Venezuela because we’ve got a lot of Venezuelan players on this team,” Guillén said.
One of the final and most memorable moments of Guillén’s career as a Tiger came during the 2011 season against the Angels at Comerica Park. In a game that matched aces Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver, the Detroit righthander was no-hitting the Angels in a tight contest. Ordonez broke up the scoreless game by hitting a long home run, but as he watched while going down the first base line, Weaver screamed at him to “run hard.” The two players exchanged words and gestures as Ordonez circled the bases. The two benches nearly cleared too. Later in the game, Guillén hit a home run off Weaver and flipped his bat emphatically while staring at Weaver. It was an uncharacteristic display of showmanship by Guillén. but one he felt was necessary.
“That was for Magglio, for what [Weaver] did to my teammate,” Guillén said.
In his mid-30s, Guillén’s body broke down pretty quickly, torn up by back problems and leg and knee injuries. He played his last game in 2011 before succumbing to a season-ending injury. He came back to Lakeland the next spring but officially announced his retirement in March. He was only 36 years old.
Evidence of his high regard by the team was shown in August of 2012 when the Tigers honored Carlos Guillén with a special day at Comerica Park. Ironically, the man the Tigers had traded to Seattle for Guillén (Ramon Santiago) was back in a Detroit uniform and gave his former teammate a big hug. Other former teammates showed up to salute Guillén and the emotional Leyland was seen wiping away some tears.
When the history of the Tigers is written, the name of Carlos Guillén deserves a place in the narrative. He arrived in Detroit an unknown, but he ended his career as one of the best shortstops the team ever had.