Yesterday, news broke that the Tigers would trade a package of six players, including the organization's top two prospects, to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. As a Tigers fan, I'm desperate to see how much the potentially disgusting lineup will produce, and I'm extremely excited about the prospects of D-Train pitching in front of a better defense and getting his BABIP below .326 (!). The most significant questions about the trade are the obvious ones: how good will Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller turn out to be? What about the underrated Dallas Trahern, who keeps getting mentioned in news reports as one of the "3 minor league pitchers" involved in the trade even though he's a far sight better-looking than Burke Badenhop and Eulogio de la Cruz? I'm sure those questions are hard to answer, so I'm thinking about a more immediate one.
Whither Brandon Inge?
The incumbent Tigers third baseman is something of an archetype. He hits the ball hard, but not very often (.241 career BA, .394 career SLG). He draws a decent number of walks (.304 career OBP...bad but not awful for that BA) and strikes out a LOT (140, 128, 150 the last three years). He's had some darn good offensive years (10, 10, 5 batting runs above average) and is generally an average-ish hitter.
He is also one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. Like, significantly. He was worth 14 runs above an average defensive third baseman last year, Gold Glove stuff. His career value is therefore mostly hidden to those who use flawed anecdotal and visual evidence--as opposed to somewhat less flawed results-based analysis--to evaluate defense. Inge has been worth 4, 5, 6, and 3 wins above a replacement-level 3B in the past four seasons. And we are living in an unassailable golden age of 3B, possibly the best ever: Rodriguez, Wright, Cabrera, Jones, Zimmerman, Lowell, Braun, Glaus, Rolen, Atkins, Beltre, and even Iwamura, Blake, and sometime-3B Figgins are all great, very good, or quite good baseball players. And I'm sure I probably left somebody out, too. Oh, it was the very good hitter Aramis Ramirez. Sorry, Aram-Ram. I probably still left somebody out. Largely because of his defense, Brandon Inge rates as better than the Iwamuras, Blakes, Atkinses (Bagginses?), and even the Beltres and Ramirezes of the world. Whether a GM on a team that needs a 3B can see that is, of course, a matter of some conjecture.
So, will the Tigers just slot Cabrera in there at 3B and trade Inge? Should they leave Inge at 3B because he's so awesome defensively, and play Miguel Cabrera at LF? Or is there some other option?
There are pretty much 2 positions on the Tigers that are relevant here: Left Field and Third Base. I will break down the various options the Tigers have. One key point: statistics indicate that Miguel Cabrera is not a below-average 3B despite his reputation; this appears to be the same as the persistent and rather silly rumor that he is some sort of gigantic fatass.
3B Miguel Cabrera .320/.401/.565 , 65 batting runs above replacement, average to above-average defense, worth 9.2 wins in 2007. Awesome.
LF Jacque Jones .285/.335/.400 , 8 batting runs above replacement, average to maybe slightly above average defense since he was a good CF and RF, worth 3.0 wins in 2007. Jones is actually an ok but below average ballplayer, whose mediocre hitting is balanced by some plus defense; he is not special and is definitely not a good person to have in LF in the (maybe) best lineup in baseball.
Brandon Inge traded (for bullpen arm?)
Another option here is to move Magglio Ordonez to LF and Jacque Jones to RF, which would be about the same.
3B Brandon Inge .236/.312/.376, 5 batting runs above replacement, excellent defense, worth 3.6 wins in 2007. Inge had his absolute worst hitting season since 2003, which means he'll probably be somewhat better than that in 2008.
LF Miguel Cabrera .320/.401/.565 , 65 batting runs (slightly different because of the position move) above replacement, worth 9.2 wins in 2007. Awesome. But. We don't know if Miguel Cabrera will be a good left fielder. In 2005 he played left and was quite bad, costing his team about 7 runs below a replacement player and maybe 17 below what Jacque Jones would do. Inge is better than Cabrera defensively, but I don't like this option so much because (a) Inge is not a good hitter in much the same way that Jones is not and (b) Cabrera probably sucks in left field because he is not even a little bit fast. Long-term, Cabrera probably projects to be a 1B, DH, or (probably sucky) RF in order to protect his bat when he loses arm strength, even more speed, or both.
The final option, if you ask me, is actually the correct one.
3B/LF Miguel Cabrera
3B/LF/C?/utility/defensive replacement Brandon Inge
LF/CF/RF/defensive replacement Jacque Jones
I won't go into the details again, but I know the following things.
1. Miguel Cabrera should have as many plate appearances as are available.
2. Third base is a hard position that takes its toll on a player, so Cabrera can move to LF or even DH to get some days off.
3. Ryan Raburn might be a better LF option than Jacque Jones, right now and possibly for the rest of Jones' career. He also plays 2B and 3B (interestingly), but he WILL compete with Jones for the LF spot and may win it. He hit .304/.340/.507 in a small but non-trivial 146 PA last season, and he's only 26.
4. Raburn's got basically no experience at 3B, and hasn't even played there in the minors since 2003. I do not think he is really a backup 3B. Polanco could shift on some days and let Raburn play 2B if they're resting people.
5. Brandon Inge can play 3B and probably any outfield position, at least a little bit. If the Tigers trade him, they do not have a backup 3B at all, which is a problem since Cabrera will likely benefit from taking some days off at 3B.
So if Jones moves to being a platooning/timesharing LF (with Raburn, whose AAA production was similar to his MLB, or Marcus Thames, who can lefty-mash a little but is not a good hitter) and Inge moves to backup 3B/OF/third catcher, the Tigers will be very well-protected against injuries to some of their older hitters, be they Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, etc.
If I were the Tigers, I'd be more interested in trading Jones or Raburn than Inge, especially in an oversaturated, underdemanded market for 3B options wherein Glaus, Rolen, Blalock, and some others seem to be quite available. That said, if Inge could be moved for something like a solid bullpen arm and a youngish backup catcher/high-minor catcher with a little potential (both of which they need quite a bit), that would be a good move. But Inge is not going to get close to his actual value in this 3B-saturated league, and I might therefore keep him.