Grading the Tigers: Infield

After a rocky 2003, both offensively and defensively, the team made it a point in the offseason to upgrade their infield group. On top of that, the team went out and signed their biggest free agent in team history – C Ivan Rodriguez. Possibly the bigger surprise was that the team MVP ended up being an offseason acquisition that garnered little interest, but nonetheless paid huge dividends for the Tigers.

C Ivan Rodriguez: A-
Besides leading the way to rejuvenating the franchise, Rodriguez had another excellent season at the plate as well – putting to rest concerns that his body would begin to break down. Only a late season slide (largely due to fatigue as well as wear and tear from catching 124 games) kept him from getting a solid A. Rodriguez is the center of the organization, the image of hope for Tiger fans, and will return in 2005 as the starting Catcher and probable 3rd hitter in the lineup.

C/UT Brandon Inge: B+
Originally expected to be the starter before the signing of Rodriguez, Inge shifted into the role of "super-sub" and filled the role extremely well, even taking over at Third Base for the majority of the final 2 months. The offense that Randy Smith continually predicted would come finally did (albeit Inge still carried a paltry .238 average in games when he did catch). With Inge's breakout year, he'll be welcomed back – although it has yet to be decided in which role. While the possibility remains that Inge could take over full time as the team's starting Third Baseman, he'd probably be best served to remain in his utility role.

C Mike DiFelice: Inc.
DiFelice was originally signed to backup Inge, but the addition of Rodriguez changed those plans. DiFelice ended up being relegated to AAA Toledo for much of the year, and did little when he was with the club. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs in late August to provide the role as the team's third catcher.

C/1B Chris Shelton: Inc.
It was really a lost year for Shelton as the Tigers Rule V draft pick. Shelton really needed to spend the season in AAA continuing to work on his hitting – but rules required him to remain on the roster all year long. Shelton will probably start Toledo out in 2005 – but don't expect him to spend too much time away from the big leagues, especially considering his impressive start to the Arizona Fall League.

1B Carlos Pena: C+
For the first 4 months, it was more of the same from Pena, plenty of potential, occasional glimpses of greatness. But when it got right down to it, it was just lots inconsistency. That all seemed to change in the final 2 months, as Pena blasted 14 Home Runs and drove in 31 runs. He finished .241-27-82, which isn't spectacular, but he showed improved patience at the plate, and 27 Home Runs (especially with playing half of his games in cavernous Comerica Park) is nothing to frown about. Pena will be back as the starting First Baseman.

2B Omar Infante: B-
Infante was a huge disappointment in 2003, never demonstrating the solid bat, quick fielding and hard working attitude he had been regarded for having as one of the top prospects in the organization. But, after he stepped into the everyday lineup in May, he was very solid, being an all around good hitter as well as respectable in the field while learning to play the other side of the middle infield. Barring a surprise, he'll return as the starting Second Baseman.

3B Eric Munson: D+
The converted First Baseman regressed in many areas after a breakout 2003. Munson's defense worsened as he lost confidence in his ability at the hot corner, all the while Munson never received consistent at bats, and in turn provided a meager .212 average. You'd think it'd be an obvious choice to cut bait with Munson rather than pay him the minimum $1.2 million he'd be owed in 2005, but that overlooks the fact that Munson hit 19 Home Runs in just 321 at bats (that's a Home Run every 16.9 at bats, best on the team). It will be interesting to see how the team handles it, as a team with a weak farm system cannot afford to let go a potential 40-Home Run hitter.

SS Carlos Guillen: A
Guillen had a monster season for the Tigers in 2004 – finally fulfilling the potential that he displayed with Seattle, but was never healthy enough to fulfill. Guillen probably would have broken manager Alan Trammell's team record for RBI in a season by a Shortstop, but his ACL injury sidelined 8 short of the record with 97 RBI. Guillen was acquired as a pending free agent, but GM Dave Dombrowski put to rest those worries, locking up Guillen to a 3-year contract extension midseason. Guillen will be anchoring the defense at Shortstop for 2005 and beyond.

IF Jason Smith: C
Smith wasn't spectacular, but provided the role he was brought up to fill as the team's utility infielder. Smith's defense was good, and he even provided some occasional pop. Smith's 2005 status is up in the air, but expect him to get another spring training invitation with the opportunity to again provide backup in the infield for the Tigers.

2B Fernando Vina: Inc.
Vina was average for the first month of the season, but then a hamstring injury sidelined him, which then progressed to a variety of other injuries, all which have put his future status into question. Either way, Infante will be the starter in 2004, but what Vina will do is still up in the air. He's determined to spend the offseason getting healthy to make one last attempt at making it as a ballplayer, but if that doesn't go well, he'll call it a career.


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