After the shock of the Prince Fielder signing wore off, the biggest question for the Detroit Tigers was how Jim Leyland would manage to give all of his players enough at bats over the next few seasons. The concerns were focused on Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. And rightfully so, given that when healthy those are the Tigers top 3 hitters.
Now that we know that Cabrera is moving to third base, it’s clear that Brandon Inge is the one who is losing playing time. And according to Jason Beck, Inge is not happy about it. Normally when a player complains about a lack of playing time, it’s tough to feel any sympathy towards them. After all, Inge is making more than $5 million next season, and his “job”, if you can call it a job, is to play baseball. For those of us working a 9-5 job, it’s tough to fathom that a player could complain about being replaced, especially one who failed to do his job at a high level.
But does Inge have a point? Are the Tigers hurting themselves by playing Cabrera over Inge?
In a strange way, yes. Despite Inge’s horrific season, which saw him demoted to the minors and hitting 197/265/283 in 102 games, he may be able to provide some value to the Tigers as a starter. His plate discipline didn’t change much, and he wasn’t swinging at more pitches than he did in the past. Typically a player going through a decline would show signs of being more aggressive, or cheating to get the fastball, but Inge didn’t do that. The only significant changes for Inge was that he couldn’t hit for power, and that he hit a lot of infield pop ups. Both of these in combination are never a good sign, as it means Inge isn’t hitting the ball hard and is giving his opponents a lot of easy outs. However, there aren’t many signs that this is a shift in his talent level, which is good news for Inge and the Tigers.
If this was a fluke, and Inge ran into some bad luck in the first half before his demotion, then there is a fairly good chance that he could have a much better season in 2012. It’s worth pointing out that Inge did post a 701 OPS after his return from his demotion to the minors. This was over an extremely small sample size, however this kind of production is exactly what we’d expect him to do based on his career averages. So there’s a fairly good chance Inge could be a 690-700 OPS bat at third next season. This isn’t very impressive offensive production coming from a corner infielder, but Inge has always managed to create value thanks to the fact he is a fantastic defender. He’ll be 35 in May, and likely not the defender he used to be, but he will be a useful player thanks to his glove.
So if the Tigers choose not to demote Inge, where could Cabrera play? Believe it or not, he might be best suited for left field. The Tigers currently have Delmon Young slotted in left, however he’d be best suited as a DH or on the bench. Despite the hype surrounding the former first overall pick, Young has never delivered on his promise as a hitter. The free swinger has a career 749 OPS, which is below average for a corner outfielder. Young is one of the worst defensive outfielders in the game. On top of possessing little range and a weak arm, Young is often lazy and doesn’t run out every play, which allows his opponents to take an extra base. Typically his UZR scores range from -10 to -20, which ranges from comically bad to costing the team multiple wins with his defence.
In fairness, Young had a -2 UZR last season, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to repeat it. Last season he was worth 0.4 WAR, meaning the Tigers could have had similar production from a guy who was promoted from AAA. That’s how costly Delmon’s glove is.
To put it in perspective, Inge has been worth 2.5 WAR more than Young between 2009-2011, and that’s even when you account for how bad Inge was in 2011. Simply put, there’s a better chance that Inge provides more value to the Tigers next season than Delmon Young would.
The other question is, can Miguel Cabrera play left field? While he hasn’t played since 2005, it would be a much easier defensive position when compared to third base. Cabrera was slightly better at third base earlier in his career, but at this point it’s unlikely he’ll be much better than Edwin Encarnacion at the hot corner. For those of you unaware of the player known better as E5, this is setting the bar about as low as you can go. Regardless of how bad Cabrera is in left, he would still be an upgrade defensively over Delmon Young.
The Tigers can still keep Fielder/Cabrera in the lineup and out of the DH spot, but the best way to maximize their resources is by leaving Inge at third and playing Cabrera in left.