Around the horn: Middle Infielders

Strong up the middle, Tigers eye consistency

The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Middle Infielders.

For the first time in his career, Placido Polanco enters a season with the knowledge he has a starting job and a long-term contract. Now he can get to know his double-play partner.

Between Polanco and shortstop Carlos Guillen, the Tigers have 16 years of experience in their middle infield duo, the kind of veteran infield presence they haven't had since Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were a tandem. In terms of actually playing together, however, Polanco and Guillen are more on par with the 2003 rookie duo of Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante.

Alarmingly, the two started together at shortstop and second base in just 21 games last season. It's more like 20 1/2 games, since Guillen was limited to five innings in one of those September contests. Polanco actually played more alongside Omar Infante, the guy he supplanted at second base, than Guillen.

"I know that the more you play with somebody, the better you get together," Polanco said last week. "Me and Guillen, we haven't really played [together] much. He was hurt, and then I was hurt. Now we have a chance to really play together and really get better. It's going to be great for the team."

Guillen's difficult recovery from ACL surgery, in fact, was a major reason the Tigers traded for Polanco last June in the first place. With Guillen hurt and Tony Giarratano rushed up from Double-A Erie, they needed another quality infielder to put in the lineup alongside Infante. When Polanco strained a left hamstring tendon in July, the Tigers had to trade for another middle infielder, picking up John McDonald from Toronto.

When Guillen and Polanco were in the middle infield together, mainly for week-long stretches in early July and early August, they played defense with flair. If they can keep it together for a whole season, they could boast the best all-around middle infield in the AL Central. In broader terms, the Tigers need Guillen healthy for a full season to have any shot at challenging in the division standings, too.

When team officials discuss injuries unraveling Detroit's 2005 season, Guillen was Exhibit A. His All-Star season in 2004 ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament that September, but the aftermath just about ended his chances of following up that breakout year.

From a pure hitting standpoint, he was as good or better last season than the year before. He fought off good pitching to spray hits to all parts of the field, and at many times, he was the most patient batter in the lineup. Still, limited in his offseason training by post-surgery recovery and hampered in his rehab at several points in the season with knee soreness, he often lacked the same power to drive the ball or the speed to take an extra base.

Detroit Tigers
Starters: Young staff grows up in '06
Bullpen: Another new closer
Catchers: Pudge eyes rebound
Corner IF: Inge provides security
Middle IF: Duo to showcase skills
Outfielders: Numerous possibilities
DH/Bench: Looking for versatility

His batting average and on-base percentages -- .320 and .368 respectively, in 87 games -- were about the same from 2004 to '05, but his slugging percentage dropped 108 points. Detroit's offense took a similar drop, as did its season.

Thus, Guillen's health became one of the organization's biggest priorities, with strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett even traveling to Guillen's home in Venezuela to check on his progress. Guillen has seemingly regained that pop in his bat during a brief stint in winter ball, though he played most of his games at designated hitter.

The Tigers were 38-44 with Guillen in the lineup, 33-47 without him. Polanco was around for little more than half the season, but he could see the difference.

"Guillen is a really good player, and we really missed him last year," Polanco said. "Just the fact that he's in the lineup makes a big difference. He's a really great hitter."

So, Tigers fans found out, is Polanco. He picked up the label of an underrated hitter long before arriving from Philadelphia in the Ugueth Urbina trade last June, but it became evident almost immediately during his Tigers tenure. He hit .351 in June after the deal, batted .367 in 13 July games before his DL stint, then finished second in the American League with a .345 average after the All-Star break.

His chance to lead the Majors in hitting without winning a batting title became a statistical fascination down the stretch before he finished behind Cubs slugger Derrek Lee. What was just as much of an oddity was that he led the Majors with a .397 average at home, even though he had two different home parks. He hit .380 with runners in scoring position even though he batted first or second in all 84 of his starts as a Tiger.

As they did with Guillen a year earlier, the Tigers pounced on the first impression and signed Polanco to a multiyear deal in August. Moreover, new manager Jim Leyland has already said he wants Polanco to hit second in his lineup. It's the first real job security Polanco has had as a Major Leaguer.

"I'm more relaxed," he admitted. "But at the same time, I feel like these people gave me all this money and I really have to perform. It's not that I'm going to put pressure on myself. But it motivates me to really work hard and show them that they made a good deal."

With Polanco and Guillen both under contract for the next two years, Infante has gone from a highly touted prospect to an insurance policy. Considering Detroit's luck, though, it wouldn't dare start a season without him. He started 2004 as a utility infielder and ended up playing 142 games, most of them at second base. He began last season as the starting second baseman, lost his everyday job when Polanco arrived, then inherited another when he took over for the injured Guillen in the second half.

In all the movement, Infante garnered 406 at-bats, 182 of them coming after the All-Star break. If Leyland can find a way to feed him semi-regular playing time as a super-utility player, he could get as much playing time this year.

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.