With the biggest bromance this side of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder finally having run its course last night in New Orleans -- I'm talking about the Super Bowl, in case your coffee hasn't taken effect yet -- it's officially time for baseball season. There are just eight more days until the Tigers report to Lakeland, and many more than eight reasons why Omar Infante is a significant upgrade over last year's Opening Day roster at second base for the Tigers.
What happened last season?
Infante started off the 2012 season bouncing back nicely from a somewhat disappointing 2011 campaign with the Miami Marlins, hitting .323/.344/.726 in April. Those power numbers didn't last, but Infante still hit .287/.312/.442 with the Marlins until he was traded to Detroit on July 23rd. Infante's .257/.283/.385 line with the Tigers was clearly a sharp decline from his numbers in the National League, but he still provided a nice upgrade over the other second basemen on the Tigers roster.
Defensively, Infante really struggled in 2012. He committed a career-high 18 errors, including 10 with the Tigers (one of which came at 3rd base). Prior to that, Infante hadn't committed more than eight errors in a season since 2004... when we was with the Tigers.
What needs to happen in 2013?
Offensively, Infante needs to continue to crush left-handed pitching. He hit .317/.331/.540 with eight home runs against southpaws last season. Conversely, his numbers against right-handed pitchers need to improve. The uptick in power wass nice -- his .144 ISO in 2012 was his highest since 2005, which happens to be the last time his on-base percentage was lower than it was in 2012. He will never be one to walk a lot, but improving upon last year's 3.8% walk rate is also a necessity, especially since he will likely be planted in the 9th spot in the lineup on most days.
Defensively, I think Infante will be fine. The 17 errors he committed at second base last season seem like an aberration more than anything, especially given the solid work he has put in with the glove over the past half decade in a number of different positions.
I'd also like to see Infante run a bit more in 2013. He stole 17 bases on 20 attempts in 2012, including seven in nine attempts with Detroit. If Jim Leyland is serious about being more aggressive on the basepaths, sending Infante more often could keep pitchers even more distracted when facing the top of the Tigers' lineup. I think he has 20-steal potential, but we'll probably see something closer to the 10-15 range.
In terms of the wrist injury that Infante suffered during the World Series, I think the "no news is good news" philosophy holds true. The initial diagnosis -- a nondisplaced fracture of the bone that connects to his pinky -- wasn't serious enough to warrant surgery and probably won't impact him in any way going forward. Until we hear any adverse reports about his health, I see no reason why Infante won't be ready to go.
2012 stats and 2013 Bill James projections
All stats via Fangraphs
The part where I predict pretty much the same thing Bill James does
It feels nice to finally be going into Spring Training with second base filled by more than a gigantic question mark. Infante has his issues, but he is a massive upgrade over the hodgepodge of names that the Tigers have used their since a certain egg-headed two-sacker wasn't offered arbitration and skipped town.
Offensively, I think Infante will respond well to hitting at the bottom of the lineup every day. He seemed to struggle adjusting between hitting second one day and eighth or ninth the next with the Tigers down the stretch last year, roles that seem similar at first glance but are probably very dissimilar in an actual game.
Infante's contract is up at the end of the year, a deadline that can become either a motivator or distraction. In this case, however, I'd like to see the Tigers lock him up for a couple extra years early on. We know what we have in Infante at this point: a second baseman who won't wow you, but can be a solid role player for a team searching for a title.