What began as a way to fill in for the injured Carlos Guillen will be a full-time move next year. Inge will head into next season as the everyday third baseman, according to manager Jim Leyland. Guillen, who played third base for much of the season before missing the final month with a lower back injury, will become the regular left fielder.
It's a move that the Tigers believe addresses both the team's struggling infield defense from this year and Guillen's long-term health. While Guillen improved markedly at third base as the summer went along, he wasn't going to compare with Inge, whose range and athleticism gave Leyland the argument to rank him among the best third basemen in the American League.
"It's the best thing for Inge -- it's the best thing for the team," Leyland said.
Two months ago, the Tigers traded Ivan Rodriguez to the Yankees with the idea that Inge would be their full-time catcher going into next season. While Rodriguez is a free agent at season's end, Inge has two more years remaining on the four-year, $24 million contract he signed after the 2006 season. Catching provided a return to the position he played for the first few years of his Major League career until the Rodriguez signing in 2004 made Inge an infielder.
Instead of this late-season stint preparing Inge for next season, the Tigers decided to move in a new direction. By mid-September, with Guillen still out, Inge was playing regularly at third, while prospect Dusty Ryan has received the bulk of the starts behind the plate since being called up from Triple-A Toledo on Sept. 2. Inge caught on Saturday for the first time since Sept. 15.
What the Tigers will do at catcher next year isn't clear. They've taken a good look at Ryan and have been impressed, but his limited experience above Double-A could be a factor. The Tigers could decide to platoon Ryan with a veteran addition, give Ryan the bulk of the duty starting out or give him more seasoning in the Minors while someone else holds down the job in Detroit for a while.
Guillen, meanwhile, will reprise the outfield experiment the Tigers briefly tried in June to get Inge -- then a utility player -- more playing time at third. An injury to Inge quickly ended the need for the move, but Guillen's recurring back issues -- inflammation from a pinched nerve -- cost him the entire month of September. He is expected to be fine next season.
"One thing I like about it," Leyland said, "is that Carlos will be in a comfort zone, because he's been out there before in his career."
Guillen began his professional career as an outfielder in the Houston Astros' farm system more than a decade ago. He was later converted to shortstop before starting his big league career in Seattle.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.