Why is Brandon Inge still on the Tigers?

Mar. 5, 2012; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers second baseman Brandon Inge (15) bats against the Toronto Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Like a kid with an Oreo cookie, I’m going to just go straight to the middle, to the heart of the matter, and give you the answer first. In a word, the answer is "loyalty." It has nothing to do with production. It has nothing to do with being able to hit lefties, nothing to do with money, and nothing to do with defense. Brandon Inge is still on the Tigers because he is Brandon Inge. If he were any other player, he would have been released long ago.

Just about everyone that has written anything about the Tigers this spring has attempted to rationalize the decision to keep Inge on the team. Jim Leyland’s famous words "he has to hit" have been dissected and interpreted more times than the Gettysburg Address. We have collectively spent more time on this topic than any other subject this spring, including the acquisition of Prince Fielder. All the while, the answer is right there. It’s loyalty. There can be no other logical explanation.

Inge is on the team despite the fact that the Tigers have other players that are better at every facet of the game, in any situation that could arise. Until you come to terms with the concept of loyalty, any attempt to rationalize Inge’s presence in the lineup will fail. If you’re looking for a logical reason for his presence on the roster, you won’t find it. The decision is not rooted in logic, it’s rooted in emotion.

Leyland’s famous comment, that Inge "has to hit," to those that wanted Inge to be released, and to many who just wanted the whole saga to come to a merciful end, was taken to mean that, if Inge didn’t hit in spring training, he would not be on the team. Well, he didn’t hit in spring training, and he’s still on the team. Rather than going back and dissecting Leyland’s words, looking for some justification or wondering whether he had a change of heart, I have come to the conclusion, by process of elimination, that Inge was never going to be released as long as Jim Leyland had a say in the decision.

There will be those that disagree with me on this, so let’s attack the myths that Inge has earned his place on this team with his performance.

Inge will only play vs lefties: The most common rationalization for keeping Inge is that he hits lefties, and will only bat vs left-handed pitchers. After all, he has a career .800 OPS and three year splits with a stat line of .247 average / .345 on-base percentage /.460 slugging average / .805 OPS vs lefties. But in 2011, Inge hit just .245 / .339 / .378 / .717 against LHP’s. Santiago hit .320 / .352 / .480 / .832 in 2011, and has three year splits of .305 / .351 / .403 / .754. Even against lefties, Santiago was the better hitter. If Inge is on the team only to face left-handed pitching, you still have to hope that he can revert back to pre-2011 productivity levels at the plate.

Danny Worth’s samples are almost too small to even bother with, but for what it’s worth, he has a career line of .296 / .351 / .408 / .759 vs lefties.Inge is no better either defensively, or at the plate than Worth. The Tigers haven't kept Inge to hit against lefties, starting less than 30% of the time. While this may be a more sensible use for Inge, and he may even be somewhat productive in that limited role, it is not the reason that he is still on the roster

Inge is there for his defense: There is an argument that Inge is a solid defender. No argument here. Brandon has handled the defensive transition to second base seamlessly. But Santiago is an elite defensive 2B, with a UZR/ 150 of plus 9.2 over the past two seasons at second base. Worth’s primary asset is his defense, and both players can play three infield positions. There is no defensive advantage to having Inge over Worth or Santiago. Moreover, no amount of defense can justify Inge's presence in the lineup, at least against right handed pitchers, which make up about 70 to 75% of the plate appearances available.

Inge is insurance for Cabrera at third base: This one is a complete non-starter with me. The Tigers are committed to Cabrera as their full time third baseman. Even if there was some uncertainty about Miggy's transition to the hot corner, Inge is not a viable alternative for all the other reasons stated herein. He is not being kept as backup insurance for Cabrera. A recent example, Sunday would have been a good opportunity to have Cabrera DH while Inge played third to give him a break. Instead, Inge served the DH role and left heads scratching.

Inge will push Raburn out of the infield: Of all the possible benefits to having Inge on the team, this is my favorite, because it’s the only one, if actually implemented, that will truly benefit the team. Ryan Raburn has a negative 18.8 UZR/ 150 rating over two seasons, which is worst in the league for any second baseman with at least as many innings played at the position. He has been consistently brutal in the infield his entire pro career, at every level he has played. Further, Raburn is a plus defender in left field, while Delmon Young is a big negative.

I would love to believe that Raburn’s days in the infield are mercifully over. But alas, it’s not going to happen. While it’s true that, if Inge is at second base, Raburn can’t be there, chances are that the present alignment will have Raburn in the infield against most right handed pitchers. Moving Raburn to left field and letting Delmon DH would be perfectly logical, but once again, this is not about logic.

Follow the money: It’s not about money. Inge has a guaranteed contract, and the Tigers will have to pay him whether he is on the team or whether he is released. No other team is going to take on his salary at this point, so there’s no real financial motive to keeping him. Besides, the Tigers have eaten far bigger contracts for some popular and not so popular players when they traded Nate Robertson, paying his contract in the deal, and in releasing Gary Sheffield, whom they were still paying deferred salary to until this season. Money has never gotten in the way of Mr Ilitch’s desire to build a winner.

The Tigers aren’t afraid to let Inge go: Last July, in the heat of a pennant race, the Tigers traded for Wilson Betemit and sent Brandon Inge down to Toledo, with his consent, to sort himself out. Betemit hit the cover off the ball for the Tigers, and Inge returned in August to a platoon role where he was very productive, hitting only against left-handed pitchers. Any other player would have been simply released, but not Brandon Inge.

When playoff time came, Inge was again on the roster, and in the lineup, making 22 plate appearances in the post season, while Betemit was on the bench, making just nine trips to the plate. The Tigers didn’t even offer arbitration to Betemit in the off season, passing on a relatively cheap alternative at second or third base, or maybe a supplemental first round draft pick if he declined arbitration and signed with another club. One has to wonder whether the decision to acquire Betemit and send Inge to Toledo required an intervention by Dombrowski to stop the bleeding with Inge, but no matter, it worked like a charm.

This is not to say that sending Danny Worth to the minors or keeping Ramon Santiago on the bench is a great tragedy, or that doing so will have a devastating impact on the team. Not at all. None of the options at second base are all that appealing. I opined many times over the past winter that I felt the Tigers should make every effort to acquire a bona fide major league second baseman, but that didn’t happen. So, we’re left with a choice of lesser solutions.

Loyalty: Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is nothing if he’s not loyal to his employees. You have to respect that. This is the same club that allowed a struggling Magglio Ordonez, who had just two homers and 15 RBI half way through the 2009 season, to vest his $18 million option for the following year. There was no way that Magglio was going to be worth that much. This is the same club that picked up a $13 million option on a fading Pudge Rodriguez for the 2008 season, probably double his market value. Those players signed with Detroit when it wasn't the place to be, and that wasn't forgotten. Brandon Inge has been a Tiger for ten years, and that counts for something at this point.

Before anyone calls me an Inge hater, I hasten to add that I have never blamed Inge for wanting to play. I expect every player to want as much playing time as they can get. Further, I have never suggested that Inge has given anything less than his best effort when he puts on a Tiger uniform. He is proud of that uniform, proud to be a Tiger, and his work for the community is deserving of our respect and gratitude. That doesn’t mean that he deserves an automatic spot on the roster, but that’s what it comes down to, given the lack of alternatives.

There’s nothing wrong with a little loyalty, unless you’re a statistician. You can’t quantify the impact that loyalty to veteran players will have on the team, or on the reputation of the organization. Anyone that has read any of my musings knows that I like statistics. In this case, I’ve pored over every statistic that I can find, and none of them support keeping Brandon Inge on the Tigers. Thus, I conclude that this isn’t about statistics. It’s about a team’s loyalty to a veteran player, and given the alternatives, I’m okay with that

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