First off, before we delve too deeply into this Brandon Inge discussion, let's get two things out of the way:
1) This is not an "Inge-hate" piece. There are plenty of fans that really, really, REALLY dislike Inge for one reason or another. This is not that. Inge has been a valuable member of this organization for over a decade. He's been reliable, averaging over 140 games per season over the last seven years, productive at times at the plate, having a pair of years with 27 home runs, and flexible in where he played, having spent time behind the plate, at third base, and in the outfield over his Tiger tenure. Like him or not, Inge has contributed a lot to the ball club.
2) Inge is not a great defensive player. Much has been made about Inge's defensive prowess at the hot corner, and there was a time at which that was true. In 2006, Inge posted a UZR/150 of 15.2 at third base, one of the best marks in baseball that year. He posted a dWAR of 3.1, an incredible number practically regardless of position. There was a time at which Inge was a great defender, and even without strong offense, was valuable. But 2012 is not 2006. Inge was in his peak years at that time; he'll head into this season at 34, and will be 35 by Memorial Day. Ask any scout, and he'll tell you that Inge has lost at least half a step. His best years in the field are behind him.
The attempt to try Inge at another position is not necessarily a bad one out of hand – it gives him a purpose coming into camp and it allows him to stay focused on that and not on losing his job at third base. The last thing this team needs is a distraction in the clubhouse as they enter the 2012 campaign with expectations as high as they were in 2008.
But just because Inge is there doesn't mean he should be looked at as the guy to win the job.
For starters, Inge has never been a good player offensively. He's had good years in the past, to be sure, but the average or bad years far outweigh the good. And things have been on a downward trend for awhile now. He hasn't hit above .250 since 2006. He hasn't posted an OPS+ over 100 since 2004. In 2011, he was downright bad, with an average below .200 and an OPS of just .548.
Even if we assume last year was an anomaly, and he'd rebound in better circumstances, the projections aren't great. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections show Inge would put up a .222/.296/.357 line. Most other projections are within the same band. A compilation of all of the projection systems, including those from Bill James and Tango Tiger listed on FanGraphs, would predict a .224/.299/.360 slash line. This would place Inge's offensive production around a .650 or .660 OPS, or an OPS+ somewhere in the low 70's in all likelihood, well below average.
Further, to examine his defense, as noted previously, things have been trending downward for awhile now. His UZR/150 each of the past two seasons has only been around a 3, slightly above average.
His range rating was negative in 2010, and barely positive in 2011. Couple that with being another year older, along with a new position, and it's tough to see Inge being much better than an average fielder at second base. He certainly won't be bad, he just won't be close to being the sort of plus defensive player that you justify keeping bad offense in the lineup every day.
Of course, it's important to keep in mind the competition. And in all honesty, the competition isn't great. But is it better than what Inge offers?
The first candidate, and arguably the odds-on favorite to be the most days second baseman, is Ramon Santiago. The Tigers re-signed Santiago to a two-year deal this off-season for $4.2 million, while simultaneously passing on a number of mediocre second base options on the free agent market.
Santiago has been relatively consistent over his career with the Tigers, with a .264/.329/.367 line since he returned starting in 2006. Ramon hit right along those lines as a half time player last year, with a few less walks and a few more extra base hits to keep his OPS relatively constant. Ramon's ZiPS projection puts him at .685, while the FanGraphs average would net him out at .679. While that difference isn't huge from Inge's .650-.660 projection, that's actually something along the lines of a 6-8 point difference in projected OPS+.
Defensively, he's been somewhat limited innings-wise over his career, splitting time at second, third and shortstop, but in each case, his UZR/150 has been above average, in some cases, well above, though obvious sample size concerns come into play as well. But, over the past two years, he's clearly been above average by the numbers at both second base and shortstop (UZR/150's of 28.3 and 3.8 at second base in 2010 and 2011 respectively, 16.1 and 10.4 at shortstop), and being three years younger than Inge, is only starting to approach a likely decline in skills and ability in the field. He's also spent plenty of time playing there, giving him additional comfort and no learning curve.
Oh, and Ramon is a switch hitter, adding left-handed / right-handed flexibility to the lineup. It is worth noting that Santiago has seen most of his plate appearances come against right-handed pitching, while Inge has excelled against left-handers (career .800 OPS).
So, a head-to-head comparison has Ramon likely out in front on both offense and defense overall, and at best for Inge, he'd be a reasonable option for a platoon, getting playing time and at-bats against left-handed starting pitchers (or somewhere around 20% - 25% of the appearances).
But it's not just a two-man race. Ryan Raburn is in the mix as well, in the second year of a two-year deal, and received a good chunk of playing time at second base last year.
To start off on defense . . . one thing is clear. Raburn is bad defensively. His UZR/150 numbers across the infield are pretty much all negative, and even with sample size limitations, the numbers are clear, Raburn's not going to be making many plays, and would likely make a poor infield defense even worse.
But what about his offense? The tale of two halves story has already been explored in-depth here and elsewhere, so we won't examine that too closely. We know he's stronger in the second half than the first half, but how much stronger has varied, and his playing time has varied with it.
But overall, Raburn has been somewhere between solid and very, very good over the past few years. His OPS+ for his career is at 106 based on a career .779 OPS. His ISO has consistently been in the .18-.20 range over the past few years. His ZiPS forecast puts him at just under a .740 OPS, while the overall average would give him a .259/.315/.438 slash line. That's approaching average production overall, and would rank him among the top 5-6 offensive players at second.
Is a good offensive player that's bad defensively worth more than a bad offensive player that's good offensively? In my book, that's a resounding yes. I understand some fans concern about the infield defense, especially with the recent move of Miguel Cabrera to third and the obvious impact that will have at the hot corner. But it's important to look at things in totality, not just as if offense and defense were both equally valuable, when we know that's not the case. Yes, the Tigers defense would get worse. But does the offense more than make up for it in comparison? I'd say so.
So, if you'd like to have a platoon setup, the Tigers are better off using Raburn in those 40 games than Inge, while leaving the rest up to Santiago.
Not happy with the concept of average defense with average offense, or bad defense and good offense? Well if it's great defense you're looking for, then the discussion should be centered on Danny Worth, who while limited offensively, is the best defensive option of the bunch. He only has 130 big league innings at second base, so it's a very small sample size, but in that time his UZR/150 is 40.9. Which backs up the scouting reports that grade Worth out as a premium defender with sure hands and great range. How much he'll hit, it's tough to say, but it's perfectly reasonable to make the case that he can be close to Inge's offensive production, and the FanGraphs aggregate projection shows a .248/.300/.351 slash line, right in line with where Inge projects as well.
This analysis is obviously solely focused on second base, so it overlooks certain advantages that other players might have (like Raburn's ability to be used as a backup outfielder or Santiago or Worth to play shortstop). But even ignoring a player's value elsewhere on the diamond, no matter how one peels this onion and what someone's opinion of what the Tigers need is at second base, the implication is pretty clear.
The Tigers are better off without Inge at second base in 2012.