When you start talking about the top catchers in the game, every list must start with the Tigers' prized backstop, Ivan Rodriguez. A now slimmed-down Pudge is hopeful that his weight loss will allow him to be more agile behind the plate (improving his defensive skills that have slipped with age over the years). There's no telling how if at all the weight loss could affect his hitting as it obviously won't change his hand-eye coordination and his muscle mass doesn't appear to have decreased, but there's no question that Rodriguez remains one of the hardest working players in the game.
But when that hard worker needs a rest, the Tigers have a better option than in 2004. The team acquired Vance Wilson from the New York Mets in an offseason trade in an attempt to provide Rodriguez more rest behind the dish in an attempt to keep him healthier and fresher down the stretch, especially in the event that the Tigers are in a playoff run.
As far as looking below the big league level, the Tigers don't have a stud prospect on the verge of the big leagues. Maxim St. Pierre is probably the closest to the big leagues, and while he's solid defensively, he's never been regarded as a big hitter, and probably would struggle offensively should the Tigers call his number. Luckily, most have confidence that should Rodriguez go down, Wilson would be able to step in and hold serve.
The Starter: Carlos Pena
The Backup: Dmitri Young
On Deck: Chris Shelton
After two and a half years, Carlos Pena may finally be ready to breakout. Some would argue he already has, after a 2004 second half that included 16 home runs.
Pena, who already displays excellent patience at the plate as well as solid defense at first, has a very smooth swing, with only a battle with consistent contact keeping him from becoming a truly dominant hitter. Pena will probably never rid himself of the high strikeouts or the low average, but could make up for it with a 30 home run season in the 6th or 7th hole.
Unlike the typical backup, Dmitri Young will likely find himself in the everyday lineup, likely hitting in the 5th hole as the designated hitter. But should Pena go down, or simply fall into a rut like he did for part of '04, manager Alan Trammell will not hesitate to shift 'Da Meat Hook into the starting spot at first, relegating Pena to a backup role.
Should either Pena or Young go down due to injury, the Tigers will likely look to last year's Rule 5 draft selection of 1B/DH Chris Shelton. Shelton, who will likely split time with Juan Tejeda at first and designated hitter for Toledo, had a monster fall campaign in the Arizona Fall League and could be ready for full-time big league duty this season, after appearing slightly overmatched with the Tigers in 2004.
Overall, the Tigers have plenty of options at first, and should receive solid production at the spot. With any luck, Pena will truly come into his own and be a solid run producer, something the Tigers haven't received since Tony Clark was in his hey-day.
After originally anticipating Fernando Vina to be the everyday second baseman, Omar Infante stepped up to be the guy after Vina went out with injury problems. Infante regressed in 2003, but put those troubles behind him and had a solid season across from double play partner Carlos Guillen.
At just 23, the sky seems to be the limit for this youngster, who was already among the top third offensively among second basemen. With improved patience and a continued development of his power, Infante could become one of the best hitters on the team.
Infante should get the bulk of the playing time, but when he needs a day off, expect manager Alan Trammell to turn to new utility infielder Ramon Martinez. Martinez isn't an everyday player and isn't a huge threat with his bat, but is solid defensively and will be a good fill in from time to time.
But if the unexpected should happen and Infante goes down for an extended period of time, don't be surprised if they turn to minor leaguer Ryan Raburn. Although he probably wasn't quite ready during his September call-up, Raburn has plenty of potential, as a very hard swinger who absolutely crushed the ball throughout the second half of 2004. Raburn's defense is also still raw having just moved to second from third prior to last year. The likelihood of him seeing a call-up in the event of an injury will likely depend on his development with Toledo.
The Tigers went out and pursued other options at third base (namely Troy Glaus and Corey Koskie), but when those players opted for other destinations, the Tigers turned their attention to last year's part-timer, Inge. Inge posted solid numbers for the first time at the big league level. Coincidentally (or maybe not) the offensive increase came along with his move from behind the plate. Now, after putting up those numbers, Inge will get the chance to show what he can do given the chance to play everyday at the same spot.
When Inge needs a rest, the Tigers will likely turn to the team's utility infieldet, although Dave Dombrowski hinted at the signing of Ramon Martinez that the team would probably carry two. If that's the case, Inge, a right-hander, would likely rest in favor of Jason Smith, a left-hander. Smith showed occasional power in his backup role along with respectable defense, something the team expects him to do again.
Should Inge go down the team may look to Smith for an increased role. However, should they make a move towards the minors, expect the nod to go to Jack Hannahan. Hannahan is already the best defensive third baseman in the organization, and even saw his offense pick up some in 2004 with AA Erie. If Hannahan can hit adequately, he might get his chance with Detroit.
The Starter: Carlos Guillen
The Backup: Ramon Martinez
On Deck: Tony Giarratano
After being shot down by Miguel Tejada and Rich Aurilia, the Tigers turnrd to the trade market and acquired Carlos Guillen from Seattle. Guillen went on to have a career year, including making his first All Star team. Only a torn ACL in September put a damper on his season.
Luckily, medical advances have significantly cut down on rehab time, and Guillen is expected to be at 100% come Opening Day. The Tigers are again hopeful that Guillen will be able to put together a year much like last year and help lead the way, with his defense hopefully not suffering because of the surgery.
But if Guillen's surgically repaired knee doesn't hold up quite as well as expected, the team will look to rest him more with Ramon Martinez. Martinez is a utility infielder, but came up as a shortstop and that is where he's at his best. Martinez hasn't proven to be a reliable everyday starter, but should do just fine making occasional appearances.
If Guillen goes down (and with his injury history, it can't be ruled out), the Tigers would probably use Martinez and Smith in his place. But watch out for youngster Tony Giarratano. The impressive youngster will likely start off at AA Erie, but has progressed quickly so far, and could be ready for a big league call-up as soon as September if he keeps it up.