As mentioned, the middle of the Tigers infield is set pending healthy spring seasons from Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco. Both players have come alive at the plate in recent seasons, and the Tigers will need that to continue in order to compete in the tough AL Central. Backing up both short and second in Detroit this season will be youngster Omar Infante. Infante has battled inconsistency during the early parts of his career, but his potential both in the field and at bat is too much to ignore, and the Tigers will continue to give him chances to prove his worth.
The Toledo infield will have a few familiar faces manning the middle of the diamond in 2006. Returning for his second tour through northern Ohio, Ryan Raburn will hold down second base this season. Raburn has struggled to maintain the offensive gains seen during his 2004 season at AA-Erie, and will need to rebound in 2006 to have any chance at a shot in Detroit. Raburn's bat will keep him in the lineup early on, but another strong showing by Juan Francia at Erie, and he could have some serious competition for playing time. After being dealt away to the Mariners following a disastrous 2003 season, Ramon Santiago returns to his original organization as a minor league free agent, and will help keep the organization from rushing Tony Giarratano before he is ready.
Filling in the backup roles at Toledo will mostly be returning minor league veteran, Kevin Hooper. Hooper struggled through a very sub-par 2005 season, but the Tigers liked the leadership he supplied and brought him back into the fold. Also seeing some time up the middle will be Don Kelly. Kelly's defense is best suited for third base, but he has played short extensively throughout his career. If Santiago struggles to provide adequate offense, Kelly should be the first option to slide into the starting shortstop role.
Much like the Toledo infield, the middle of the Erie infield will see some familiar faces in 2006. Returning will be shortstop Tony Giarratano, second baseman Juan Francia, and utility infielder Scott Tousa. During a season in which Giarratano was still recovering from a shoulder injury that prematurely ended his 2005 season at Lakeland, and seeing some emergency time in Detroit, Tony struggled to get on track. A return to the Eastern League will allow him an opportunity to consolidate his offensive and defensive gains of the past two years and hopefully make the leap many feel he is capable of making. Juan Francia finally broke out at West Michigan in 2004, and that progress continued all the way through Lakeland and on to Erie last season. Juan is one of the fastest and most adept base stealers in the system, and he could see some surprise time in Detroit late in 2006.
Also vying for some backup time along with Scott Tousa will be shortstops Gil Mejia and Juan Gonzalez. Neither player is likely to make an impact at any minor league stop this season, but they could provide valuable insurance in case of a lengthy injury at either Erie or Lakeland.
Aside from almost certain promotions for Brent Dlugach and Nick McIntyre, the Lakeland middle infield slots are very much up in the air. Dlugach has yet to show much progress with his relatively weak bat, but his glove-work draws raves, and the Tigers are a fan of his outstanding athleticism and passion for the game. While McIntyre's defensive skills are suited for third base, he could slide over to fill a gaping hole at second, where his offensive skills would be much more valuable to the L-Tigers.
Neither Steve Young nor Brooks Colvin have earned a promotion from their second base slots at West Michigan, but in light of the hole at Lakeland, one could receive a promotion in 2006. Neither player projects as much of a contributor, but both have the ability to pick the ball in the field and could fill the role until someone at West Michigan distinguishes himself.
Following up on some very impressive pro debuts at Oneonta could be a very challenging task for the middle infielders headed for Grand Rapids. Shortstop Michael Hollimon tore up the New York-Penn League early on, and finished with some very impressive numbers. His keystone partner, Will Rhymes, also logged an outstanding debut season, and will look to continue his breakout for the Whitecaps. As experienced collegiate hitters, both players could stand to be pushed aggressively, and hot starts to the 2006 season may force the organization to re-evaluate the infield scenario at Lakeland. Rhymes will see the least resistance to a possible promotion, but he'll have to hit a ton to earn it from an organization that doesn't like to promote too many players during the season. Backing up both Rhymes and Hollimon at West Michigan will be fellow 2005-draftee Mark Haske out of the University of Cincinnati.
Should Hollimon or Rhymes receive a promotion to Lakeland, several players will be looking to fill the ‘Caps vacancy. Shortstop Audy Ciriaco is an elite talent, but there is some skepticism surrounding his readiness for full-season ball. Second basemen Jose Patino and Agustin Guzman both have intriguing sets of tools, and could excel if challenged early in their careers.
Overall, the Tigers are starting to see the development of some depth up the middle. The organization, as well as it's fans, believe they may have the middle infield combination of the future gaining experience at AA, with some other interesting prospects pushing behind them should someone falter. While the Tigers system lacks depth in many areas, shortstop and second base are starting to fill in, and with some strong showings this season, both could become positions of strength for the organization.