TigsTown Infield Preview

The Tigers don't have many questions concerning their everyday roster, and of those that do exist, none of them exist in the infield, where the Tigers head to Lakeland with all four infield positions (as well as their utility infield spot) already set.

There isn't much suspense when it comes to the Tigers' infielders; the entire group that was the starter for the majority of last year will hold their role (for better or worse) in 2006.

Starting at first base, the Tigers are very excited about the potential of Chris Shelton, who blasted 18 home runs with an .870 OPS in his first season actually playing for the Tigers (as opposed to 2004, where he spent the entire season on the bench). At just 25, the sky is the limit for Shelton at the plate, and while he's still a work in progress at first base, he's by no means a problem defensively for the team.

The Tigers acquired Placido Polanco in June of '05 when they realized they needed to move Ugueth Urbina because of the backlog in the bullpen. The deal couldn't have worked out better, as they got Polanco, who promptly emerged as a reliable veteran at the top of the order. In his half season with the Tigers, he put up an .846 OPS, including spending most of the time as the team's leadoff hitter. But in 2006, manager Jim Leyland wants to use Polanco as the team's #2 hitter, the position he believes Polanco fits best in, as he isn't the threat on the basepaths that Nook Logan or Curtis Granderson would be.

Possibly the key to the team though will be shortstop Carlos Guillen, who struggled in 2005 in returning from his torn ACL at the end of the '04 season. Guillen, who had a career year for the Tigers that year, put up a .921 OPS and made his first All Star team. Guillen will be playing somewhere to be determined for native Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic next month. But whenever he returns to the Tigers, they'll need him to be ready to play everyday, and likely hitting in the third spot in the lineup.

Finally, we come to third base, where Brandon Inge, the senior member of the Detroit Tigers, is firmly entrenched. Despite other options being available via trade (such as Corey Koskie and Troy Glaus, both of whom the team had interest in back in the previous offseason), the Tigers elected to bring back Inge, who tailed off badly in the second half of 2005 after a very strong start. Inge led the team in at bats and was the leadoff hitter for much of '05, but he'll likely find himself someplace further down the lineup this season (likely in part because of his .282 OBP after the All Star break). Inge is very good defensively, but the Tigers are putting a lot of faith in Inge that he'll be able to rebound and produce at a position where offensive production is put at a premium.

The Tigers utility man is locked in as well, as the 24-year old Omar Infante will hold the spot, and likely see a good amount of playing time spelling three of the Tigers' infielders (Polanco, Guillen and Inge). Infante had a breakout season in 2004, but regressed at the plate and eventually lost his spot to Polanco. However, Infante has excellent range and if he can stay focused, could potentially push for more playing time, especially if Inge can't produce the way the team needs him to.

Dmitri Young will likely get an occasional appearance at first base, but the number of those will likely be determined by whether or not the Tigers decide to keep an extra outfielder or an extra infielder. Namely, the battle looks to come down to Marcus Thames vs. Carlos Pena. Pena has been extremely frustrating for the Tigers, as he shows glimpses of being a star, but never seems to be able to continue that production over the course of an entire season. Pena spent the first two months of the '05 season doing almost nothing for the Tigers, and then consequently was sent down to AAA Toledo. He spent two months getting his confidence back, returned to Detroit, and promptly crushed the ball for the Tigers. In 126 at bats at the end of the year, he launched 14 home runs. If Pena can find a way to do that over the course of an entire year, he'd be an All Star for the Tigers. If in fact they could just get him to produce at a respectable level over an entire season, he'd be a valuable commodity.

With so little in question for the Tigers, the only real issues come down to Pena, the health of Guillen, and the production of Inge. If things all go in the right direction for the Tigers when it comes to those three issues, it'll go a long way toward bringing the Tigers back to respectability. If they don't, then it will likely be another long year for the Tigers.

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