Around the Horn: Bench

Tigers' reserve mix hinges on Inge's role

The following is the last in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. For the past seven Wednesdays, we've previewed a different position. Today: Designated hitter and bench.

DETROIT -- Given time to practice and train, Brandon Inge might be able to play any position on the field. What, if any, position Inge will be playing for the Tigers this season remains to be seen.

While Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis proved to be the biggest names of Detroit's offseason, Inge became in some ways the face of it. Cabrera's addition gave the Tigers a new third baseman and gave Inge a winter of discontent. The problem he and the Tigers have faced is that they cannot seem to subtract him.

He might well have been a potential everyday third baseman for another team if price wasn't an issue, but the $19.1 million owed Inge over the next three years has proven to be a deal-breaker. So unless the Tigers can deal him to a team in need sometime during camp, they're going to have to find a place for him on their bench, and he's going to have to find a way to accept it.

"I'm not happy with it. I'm not happy at all," Inge said last month. "But my hands are tied. There's not much else I can do. And at the same time, I'm not going to be a cancer. I want to play baseball. I love playing the game of baseball. There's nothing more in my life other than my kids and my family that I love more. I don't care how much money you pay me. I want to play."

If that remains the case come Opening Day, the Tigers could have one of the most versatile players in baseball at their disposal. In turn, their bench could be almost as useful as their lineup is formidable.

It's a similar situation in many ways to what Inge faced four years ago. He was Detroit's catcher of the future in 2002 and '03 and seemed set in that spot heading into 2004 until the Tigers were able to sign Ivan Rodriguez. The Tigers liked Inge's ability a lot, but they weren't going to turn down the chance to sign a future Hall of Famer.

Inge became a utility player, and a pretty good one at that, backing up Rodriguez behind the plate and playing all three outfield positions before eventually taking over at third base. He had three outfield assists in the same game -- two from left, another from center -- and he converted 151 total consecutive chances without an error while shuffling between all those spots.

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?

Had the Tigers signed Troy Glaus or Edgar Renteria on the free-agent market after the 2004 season, Inge could've ended up the regular center fielder instead of Alex Sanchez. When Glaus, Renteria and others spurned Detroit for points elsewhere, Sanchez was re-signed, and the hot corner belonged to Inge.

That, however, was Inge at ages 26 and 27. Now, he's in his early 30s, and he had established himself as an everyday player while getting accustomed to regular at-bats. He said two weeks ago that he looks at a super-sub position as a way to return to an everyday position somewhere next year. Considering he has never reacted well to days off, how he reacts to them now could well determine whether he starts again, whether in Detroit or somewhere else.

More immediate, Inge changes the mix of a bench that seemed pretty much set before the Tigers couldn't deal him. Assuming Vance Wilson is ready for Opening Day, which even he admits is no sure thing, he was to join a reserve group that would've likely included Marcus Thames in the outfield, Ramon Santiago in the middle infield and Ryan Raburn roaming between second, third, left and center.

General manager Dave Dombrowski conceded during the Winter Caravan that the Tigers probably couldn't keep Thames, Santiago and Raburn on the 25-man roster if Inge was still around. Of those guys, only Raburn has a Minor League option remaining. If Wilson opens the year on the disabled list following Tommy John surgery last summer, that would open the way to keep everyone else for a while. Regardless, Inge will be working some at catcher this spring.

If Inge can play at second base, a position he handled regularly in college but has not played in the Majors, his versatility would overlap that of Raburn. Unless Inge proves adept at shortstop, however, it would appear unlikely he would take Santiago's spot. Though Carlos Guillen could move back to short on occasion, Santiago's value as a late-inning defensive replacement could give him an edge.

Though Thames' value is in his power, his ability to play both corner spots as well as first base gives him more chances to get into the lineup. At one stretch last summer, he nearly split starts at first base before Sean Casey pulled out of his early-season slump and began hitting for production again. As it stands, he appears set to share starts to some degree with Jacque Jones in left field. How that balance works out will likely depend on how Jones and Thames hit early on.

There's plenty of versatility in the group. There is not, however, a big left-handed bat. Though Santiago switch-hits, he's a defense-first type of player unlikely to force a pitching change from an opponent if he steps into the batter's box. The biggest lefty bat not in the lineup likely comes from reigning Triple-A All-Star Timo Perez, whose productive performance in last week's Caribbean Series gives him a head start on his timing when full-squad workouts begin next week.

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