I wasn’t aware that ABC’s hit reality show, Extreme Makeover, had a baseball edition. Apparently, they started with the Tiger infield. The chief surgeon, Dave Dombrowski, performed some liposuction on the middle of the infield, and he tummy-tucked it with a pair of gold-glovers. It wasn’t a complete reconstruction, however. The corners of the infield will still bring some remnants of familiarity. The biggest and most exciting transformation was made behind the plate.
The signing of Ivan Rodriguez has gone down as the biggest acquisition in the Detroit Tigers’ illustrious history. Rodriguez will be a remarkable upgrade to last season’s catcher, Brandon Inge. Sure, Rodriguez and Inge have career batting averages that are merely separated by more than 100 points in favor of the puertoriqueño. Sure, Pudge has one Gold Glove (10) per every three runs scored by Inge. But the most valuable part of his game that Rodriguez brings to the ‘D,’ is his ability to be a leader and to help out young pitchers develop (his ability to attract fans to Comerica helps too). Rodriguez is a safe bet for Cooperstown because of his defense, offense, and several other intangibles that will certainly carry over into Motown.
Moving counter-clockwise around the base pads, our next stop will be at first baseman, Carlos Pena. The man who would justify the trade of fan favorite, Jeff Weaver, has done little to quiet the skeptics of the deal. The Tigers are still waiting for the slugger who hit 7 homeruns in April and again in August of his rookie campaign to put those kinds of months together for a full season. At times, Peña has shown brilliance in the field, but he has also shown some mind-boggling lapses. He is in a better situation this season than the past. Surrounded by less-experienced players last summer, there was a lot of pressure to perform well. The revamped lineup will lift an enormous amount of this pressure off of his shoulders.
If I could direct your attention to your left, you’ll see another gold-glover in Fernando Vina. The bad news is that Vina missed more than 100 games last season with the Cardinals due to a hamstring injury. Ready for the good news? When he last missed that many games, the next year he had a .380 OBP, and the next two years he won the Gold Glove award at second base. Vina will probably hit at the number 2 slot on Trammell’s lineup card behind Alex Sanchez.
Número uno on the Tiger’s wish list for the off-season was an upgrade at shortstop. The top two free agent shortstops, Miguel Tejada and Rich Aurilia, shunned the Tigers after finishing almost 50 games behind first place in the worst division in baseball. Fortunately, the Seattle Mariners signed Aurilia, and this made their shortstop Carlos Guillen very expendable. Well, to make a longer story shorter, Detroit nabbed him. Guillen is a very solid hitter from both sides of the plate. He doesn’t possess oodles of power, but he will hit a few out of the ballpark. Guillen has an arm that is good enough to play third base, but is probably more effective at short. In the day and age of shortstops like A-Rod and Garciaparra, Guillen is not considered in the upper echelon of the position, but he is a significant improvement from the past few seasons.
Finishing up the infield is slugging third baseman, Eric Munson. Munson proved why he had been so highly touted as a minor leaguer when he went on a power frenzy in July and August. In less than 100 at-bats, Munson hit 8 homeruns before his season was shortened with a fractured thumb. He made the switch from first to third base in order to find a spot on the team. That shows a lot about his character, but it also means that he is still learning the position; therefore, he is a below-average defender. Similar to Peña, Munson will not have as much pressure to perform with a core of reliable major leaguers around him.
The Tigers have a lot of flexibility in the infield with some solid backups and designated hitter, Dmitri Young. The reigning Tiger MVP will be the DH for most games, but he is still able to play a few different positions, mainly first base. Young flirted with .300 all season, had a career high in dingers, and he managed to bat in 85 runs on an offensively challenged team. He should benefit greatly from hitting between “Pudge” Rodriguez and Rondell White.
The most disappointed Tiger going into 2004 is most likely catcher, Brandon Inge. Trammell had said that he would be the catcher this summer, but obviously, something came up. Only time will tell, whether Inge will be in a Tiger’s uniform in April. His name has surfaced in some trade rumors, or he may work on his swing in the minors. He is a great defensive specialist with a fierce, competitive attitude.
Other players, whose futures are still to be determined, are catcher, Mike DiFelice; second baseman, Warren Morris; shortstop, Omar Infante; third basemen, Danny Klassen and Greg Norton. DiFelice has been a proven backup catcher in the league through these past few years. Morris saw a lot of action at second when others failed to produce, and he seemed to produce more than any of his predecessors. Infante had a miserable 2003, but his winter league performance was simply outstanding. Klassen saw action in 22 games last year when Munson was injured, and he showed he could be a good utility player by playing third, short, and second. Norton has the Triple Crown for pinch hitting over the past 3 seasons. He hit .347 when he was coming off the bench in Colorado.
The principle parts of the makeover look as if they have been completed, but what is to be done with the excess remains uncertain. With the additions of Rodriguez, Vina, and Guillen to complement Pena, and Munson, they have constructed a much more bolstered offense and defense.