The first and third basemen in Detroit are pretty much set in stone. Starting at first the majority of the time will be Chris Shelton, with some help from both Carlos Pena and Dmitri Young. Across the diamond at third, the Tigers will again rely on Brandon Inge to play 150+ games. Even early in spring training, there does not appear to be much chance of this scenario changing.
In their quest to defend the International League title, the Mudhens will have help from some familiar faces. Returning to the corners of the infield will be Jack Hannahan and Mike Hessman, as well as utility man Don Kelly, who could see significant time at third as well. In addition to this returning trio, the Tigers signed minor league free agent Josh Phelps to split first base and DH duties with Hessman. Hannahan's defense will likely keep him at third most games, but his constant injury issues will allow opportunities for Kelly to see time at the hot corner as well.
Contrary to the certainty that seems evident at Toledo, the Erie infield seems a bit up in the air. After a very disappointing season, Chris Maples will likely return to AA with an opportunity to play first base on a regular basis. Along with Maples, catcher Mike Rabelo could see time at first as well, in a platoon scenario. There is also a slim chance that Kirkland's teammate from Lakeland, Kelly Hunt, could make the trip to Pennsylvania as well. Hunt struggled tremendously last season, but with the presence of Jeff Larish behind him, the organization may be forced to move him up the ladder whether he's ready or not.
After a solid season at Lakeland, toolsy prospect Kody Kirkland will trot out to third everyday, where improvements in his consistency and defense will be essential to his success during a challenging AA season. Someone else who could see limited time at third is minor league free agent Brian Rios. Rios has been playing more and more outfield in recent seasons, but his career began as a third baseman, and the former three-time Tiger draftee could return to his hot corner roots for a few games in 2006.
The aforementioned Jeff Larish should be manning first base on a daily basis for Lakeland in 2006. Larish is an elite, polished collegiate hitter that the organization must challenge immediately. An early assignment to High-A Lakeland would demonstrate a willingness by the front office to move Jeff quickly to a level more suited for his skill set. After improving significantly as the 2005 season went along, third baseman Wilkin Ramirez will receive another challenging assignment; this time to Lakeland. The combination of Ramirez and Larish at the corners should help give the L-Tigers a potent middle of the order. Also receiving time at Lakeland will be utility player Nick McIntyre. With a strong spring, Nick could push for time at Erie, but he's far more likely to join the Lakeland roster.
The West Michigan Whitecaps have been impressive in recent seasons, and with a talented group of player set to join the roster in 2006, that run should continue. With the presence of Jeff Larish and potentially Kelly Hunt at Lakeland, Josh Lee likely slots back into the ‘Caps lineup this season. Lee never quite got things rolling last season, but the former D-III college star will get another shot this summer. Joining Lee at first base will be 2005 draft choice Ryan Roberson. Roberson's raw power should provide some much needed pop to the middle of the lineup. Taking on third base duties in Grand Rapids will be 2004 high school draftee Cory Middleton. Middleton is a raw player with the potential to break out if he can handle the distinct challenge of full-season baseball.
As an organization, the Tigers lack depth at the infield corners, and this problem could become very evident should injuries strike. Without much power from the corners, the Tigers minor league teams will be forced to find run producers from other positions, and will likely have to rely on pitching to win games. Keep and eye on Larish, Kirkland, and Ramirez in 2006, as these three are the cream of the corner infield crop. Larish could join Kirkland in Erie by mid-summer, and don't be surprised if he's knocking on Detroit's door sometime late in 2007.