The elephant is sitting right there in Jim Leyland's living room. We can't stop staring; he doesn't seem to know it's there.
Brandon Inge -- the cat with at least nine lives who keeps getting bumped out of his position only to reappear at another next spring -- may be the most talked about, most loved and most despised Detroit Tiger all at the same time. Depending on who you ask, he’s the last one to camp and the first one in front of the microphones when reporters look for an interview. Or maybe he’s the hardest working, most enthusiastic player on the field, a do-er of good deeds off the field. Except when he's the most disgruntled player ever when he’s not playing.
He’s the all time strikeout leader in franchise history. He is a one-time all star who was designated for assignment, banished to Triple-A Toledo, and reappeared on the playoff roster last season. He is a lock to make the team and a lock to be released, depending up on who you ask. He is the most interesting Tiger in the world.
We all know what Jim Leyland said earlier this spring. Brandon Inge can play third base in his sleep, and nobody is surprised that he has made a seamless transition to second base this spring. "But he has to hit," Leyland said. And he hasn’t hit.
After 10 seasons of futility, particularly against right-handed pitchers, are we going to terminate or continue a 10-year love/hate relationship based on one spring training’s numbers -- numbers that currently stand at .171 average, .209 on-base percentage, .293 slugging average for an OPS of .502. Those, by the way, are worse than any other player on the spring-training roster.
We also know what Inge did at the plate last season, hitting just.197/ .265/ .283/ .548, and we know that he has hit respectably against left-handed pitching, with a career average of .265, an on-base percentage of .342 and an OPS of .800. And we know about his defense, wherever he has played.MLB.com's Jason Beck wrote Saturday that Leyland discussed three roster decisions looming. (What? Only three?) Leyland chatted about the last rotation spot, and the last bullpen spot, and the last outfield spot, and how the decisions may go down to the last day. But when it came to second base, Leyland's quote was
"Second base is not a problem," Leyland said March 12. "It might be a problem figuring out who’s going to play there, but it’s not a problem, because I’m covered three ways for sure."
Do note that on March 12, Inge's slash line was .294 / .368 / .588, so things may have changed after he went into a prolonged slump. He has just two hits in the seven games he's played in since then.
Compare Inge to his chief rival for a job, Danny Worth. Worth is a player who Leyland talked up this spring, pointing at his ability to field three-positions at an above-average level. Worth is batting .296 with a .375 OBP and .556 slugging, for an OPS of .931 Worth has not gone unnoticed. Leyland told the Detroit News:
"I think Danny Worth is going to hit enough to be a very useable big-league player," Leyland said. "He's much stronger. The ball jumps off his bat. He's a quality kid with good skills.
"Do I think he's gonna hit enough (to be a long-term big-league player)? Yes I do. He's one of those guys you kind of watch, you look for matchups."
"Right now, without question, he's as good as any utility infielder in the league this year," Leyland said. "He has an above-average arm, above-average hands. He moves good. He's a smart infielder. And he runs pretty good."
You don't want to rely too much on spring training statistics to make a decision, but clearly Inge has not shown improvement on a rather poor 2011 season and Worth continues to do what is asked of him.
Part of me can’t help but root for Inge to make it. I can’t root against a Tiger who shows up with his lunch pail every day, who never quits, who gives so much to the community, and wants so badly to play baseball for the Detroit Tigers. But a bigger part of me just wants it to be over. If we ask ourselves honestly, does Brandon Inge deserve to be on the team based on his contributions on the field, especially when compared to Worth, I think we all know the answer.
But enough of what I think. Tell us what you think.