Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Around the Horn: Middle infielders

DETROIT -- Carlos Guillen was trying to defend his turf, or at least the part of the turf where he played. He ended up being prophetic about how he would move.

While the Tigers' postseason hopes were fading in their three-game series at Cleveland last September, Guillen was facing questions about possibly shifting to first base next year. It was not an idea he particularly liked at first, because it had the feeling of being replaced. So he made his point.

"I don't have a problem playing first base. I don't have any problem," Guillen said at the time. "But if you bring in a shortstop, he'd have to be a really good shortstop."

Asked who that might be, Guillen said, "I don't know. Not too many."

Pressed further, Guillen ran off a handful of names, including Orlando Cabrera, Cesar Izturis and Omar Vizquel. Edgar Renteria was at the top of the list. After all, Guillen was willing to move to third base when the Tigers made a brief push to sign Renteria as a free agent after the 2004 season. He didn't know anything was going to happen this time, but he thought of Renteria in that category.

So, obviously, did the Tigers, whose middle infield entering the season still features a Gold Glove winner on one side and a multi-time All-Star on the other. The All-Star is just a little different.

The Tigers couldn't know for sure that they were going to get Renteria when they told Guillen about their plans for next year on the season's final weekend, but they anticipated he would be available with young Yunel Escobar available to take Renteria's place in Atlanta. Still, the Tigers reassured Guillen enough that he was fine with first base.

The soonest possible day they could make that move, they did, trading for Renteria from Atlanta and announcing it less than 24 hours after the World Series ended. They had to give up two very good prospects -- late-season hero Jair Jurrjens and potential star center fielder Gorkys Hernandez -- to do it, but they felt like it was their most pressing need heading into the offseason. And they filled it without having to dip into a free-agent market that was not seen as particularly strong.

For all that they've done since, it was the Renteria move that started it all.

Detroit Tigers
Catchers: Veteran duo behind plate
Corner IF: New spot for Guillen
Middle IF: Renteria takes over at short
Outfielders: Mags leads the way
Starters: Rotation deeper than ever
Bullpen: Door opens for Cruceta
DH/Bench: What to do with Inge?

"People almost forget about getting Renteria at this point," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Monday, "because it was right after the World Series and we had other acquisitions afterward."

Guillen still has a very good feeling about the move. He also has a pretty good memory.

"I don't know if you remember last year," Guillen said, "but I moved to first to get a guy like Edgar Renteria. Because he's good. He knows how to win. He plays hard. He knows how to play.

"Sometimes you don't need guys that maybe hit 40, 50 home runs. You need guys who know how to play baseball. They know how to get [runners] over, hit ground balls with men on third, not trying to do too much. That's the type of guy you need to win a ballgame."

To put Renteria in that category might not do his hitting justice, especially since he laid down just two sacrifice bunts last year. Though a high right ankle sprain limited him to 124 games, his fewest in a season since his rookie year of 1996, the offense he put up when he played ranked among the best in baseball.

With a .332 average and solid extra-base power, Renteria's .860 OPS actually beat out Guillen by a point despite Guillen's 35 doubles, nine triples and 21 home runs. Florida's Hanley Ramirez and National League MVP Jimmy Rollins were the only shortstops in the Majors with a higher OPS.

The only question to his offense is how it will transition to the American League, where his one season there was a relative disappointment. After signing with Boston a few years ago, his .720 OPS in 2005 remains his career low, and he struck out 100 times in 623 plate appearances. He hit just .229 that September during Boston's run for a playoff spot. Not until he was back in the National League next year with Atlanta did his numbers rebound.

He's back in the American League, but as a somewhat different hitter. His presence at the plate has arguably matured with age. His average pitch total per plate appearance has risen in each of the last three seasons, and he's statistically a much better hitter when behind in the count now compared to then.

Defensively, the Tigers readily admit his range isn't quite the same as when he was younger, evidenced through both range factor and zone rating. What they like about him, however, is that he makes the plays on the ground balls he can reach.

For all Renteria has accomplished, the only reigning All-Star second baseman alongside whom he has played was Fernando Vina in 1999, though Luis Castillo went on to future stardom. Placido Polanco, himself a former teammate of Renteria in St. Louis, arguably ranks in a elite category at this point.

The errorless streak remains intact, now a record for his position at 181 games. If he can avoid a booted ball for the first few weeks of this season, he'll break Steve Garvey's record for all infielders at 195 straight errorless games. Between his glove and his bat, 2007 became the season Polanco finally earned recognition for more than grit, from his first Gold Glove to his first All-Star selection.

His batting average was relatively consistent -- .341 overall, .364 with runners in scoring position, .357 with runners on base, .345 versus right-handers, .326 against lefties.

If not for Polanco, Renteria might be an ideal second hitter in Detroit. Instead, Renteria appears set to hit seventh and follow Guillen yet again.

"Carlos was a very good shortstop," Renteria said. "I don't know why he's moving, but I appreciate that, because I want to play with Detroit, too."

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