Detroit Tigers: Take your time Brandon Inge

Brandon Inge hears someone creeping up behind him. Is it you, Don Kelly? (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

For most major league baseball teams, having a starting position player hit the disabled list never spells good news. For the Detroit Tigers, having Brandon Inge hit the DL may have been exactly what the team needed, and what the fans wanted.

Since the beginning of June, Inge has been on the 15-day DL after coming down with mononucleosis. He is set to begin a rehab assignment with the triple-A affiliate Toledo Mud Hens before his expected return to the Tigers for their series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. As a fan, however, I find that I can’t stop myself from saying, “take your time Brandon Inge.”

It’s no secret that Inge has become a fan favorite during his time in Detroit. He is currently the longest-tenured player on the team (debuted in 2001 with the Tigers) and, for most of his years, was a solid foundation down the line at third base both offensively and defensively.

Although he was never going to be a .300 hitter, or a top-of-the-order impact player, he was a reliable bat at the bottom of the order that could hit you close to .250 with 60 or 70 RBIs and 20 home runs. In 2006, quite possibly his best season, he helped the team to a World Series appearance by hitting .253 with 27 home runs, 83 RBIs and 137 hits. And then, in 2009, he garnered his one and only all-star appearance while collecting 87 RBIs with 27 home runs and 129 hits.

That was the type of player Brandon Inge was. Brandon Inge is no longer that player.

This season appears to be the beginning of the end for Inge’s career, as he has yet to play up to the two-year $11.5 million contract he signed before this season. Before hitting the DL, he played in just 52 games, and hit a weak .211 with just one home run and 12 RBIs, to go with just 34 hits. These are not the type of numbers that will help convince the team to pick up the third year club option worth $6 million on his contract.

With these types of numbers, Inge’s DL stint couldn’t have come at a better time for Tiger fans and for manager Jim Leyland, who has taken heat in recent days for his line-ups continually consisting of struggling players who belong on the bench. Yes, Ryan Raburn, I am talking about you.

With Inge out, it has allowed a player like Don Kelly to step into an everyday role, and to this point, it has paid off for the Tigers in a very good way. Kelly has provided a solid bat at the top of the batting order and a reliable glove at third since taking over for Inge. While Kelly’s numbers, .256 BA with 9 RBIs on one home run and 30 hits in 43 games, don’t appear to be all that much better than Inge’s, we have to remember that Kelly’s primary role in the first two months of the season was as a bench player who would play every four or five days.

When Inge was healthy, he would hit eighth in a batting order that had shaky number-two hitters in Will Rhymes and Scott Sizemore. Between Inge and Rhymes, they were a combined .216 with just 15 RBIs on one home run and 49 hits. Since Inge has hit the DL and Kelly has been inserted into the number-two spot, the batting order has changed with Jhonny Peralta dropping to the eighth spot. The combined numbers of Kelly and Peralta are a .287 BA with 49 RBIs on 12 home runs and 100 hits.

With most of those stats coming off the bat of Peralta, it can be argued that most of his numbers have come when he was hitting in the six spot behind Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. In the past 10 games that have seen Peralta and Kelly in those two spots, they have combined to hit .272 with 12 RBIs on three home runs, 21 hits and nine runs scored. In those 10 games, those two players have already matched some of those numbers put up by Inge and Rhymes in their games.

Don Kelly has been a breath of fresh air for Tiger’s fans because he has provided that stability needed in the two spot. He has the ability to get Austin Jackson over to second or third, if needed, and he also has been better at getting on for the middle of the order than Rhymes or Sizemore were in the first two months.

While Kelly may not be the ideal pick to replace Inge over the long term, he has taken advantage of his opportunity of becoming an everyday player. As skeptical as many fans have been of Kelly in his short career, he has at least been better than Inge this season.

Kelly has not just replaced Inge successfully on the offensive side, but on the defensive side as well. After just nine errors in all of 144 games in 2010, Inge hit the DL with five errors in 52 games, and had started just six double plays compared to 24 from a year ago. Kelly, however, has just two errors at third base this season and has already started four double plays in 30 games less than Inge.

Perhaps Kelly has more to play for. This has been his first real chance at playing in an everyday role and he doesn’t have the luxury of already having signed a huge contract. Making the league minimum, Kelly is forced to play everyday like he could get sent down to the minors with a bad performance, while Inge can take his time rehabbing, knowing that when he’s healthy, the Tigers have no choice but to return him to the team.

To Brandon Inge I say, “Take your time rehabbing. You have not been sorely missed.”

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