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Are the Tigers Content With Inge at Third?

The Tigers have plenty of holes to fill for 2011, and it appears as though they have the payroll to make the requisite changes. Impending free agents like Magglio Ordonez, Jeremy Bonderman, and Johnny Damon will clear more than $65 million from the payroll. What’s more, the Tigers don’t figure to pay out any significant arbitration raises this winter. This leaves them plenty of room to improve the club via free agency.

We’ve heard them connected with free agent to-be Adrian Beltre, who could provide a considerable upgrade over free agent to-be Brandon Inge. But the Tigers threw us a curveball this morning by announcing that they had signed Inge to a two-year extension. It didn’t take long for people to assume that Inge will remain at third base full time. That’s understandable. Inge has, after all, played 305 games at third base in the past two seasons, and in five out of the last six seasons he’s been the team’s primary man at the position. But that doesn’t mean he’s very good at it.

Inge’s 2.1 WAR suggests he had a good season in 2010, despite offensive futility. His .314 wOBA ranked 17th among MLB third basemen, right alongside the disappointing Pablo Sandoval. His offense hasn’t exactly been in decline lately, since his wOBA is right in line with last year, and a bit better than it was in 2007 and 2008. But it is clear at this point that Inge does not hit adequately for a third baseman. Gone are the days of even a .330 wOBA.

Where Inge provides value is with his glove. In 2006 and 2007 he was among the premier defenders at third base, accumulating a 30.2 UZR in 2701.2 innings. Since then he’s been above average, but not at an elite level. In 2010 his 3.1 UZR ranked ninth among qualified third basemen. It was the second time in three years that his range rated as a negative.

What I’m questioning with this move is whether Detroit intends Inge to be their 2011 third baseman. They can probably contend with a 2.1 WAR player at third, but that’s assuming that Inge, entering his age-34 season, can maintain even that level of production. If his skills on offense fade he’ll become an even more noticeable black hole in the lineup. If his skills on defense fade he’ll become essentially useless. Are the Tigers really comfortable with that kind of situation at third base?

Given all the holes the team has to fill this winter, perhaps they’re content to keep Inge and spend money where it’s most needed. If Inge can hold stead at 2 WAR for the two-year duration of the contract he will enable the Tigers to improve the club elsewhere. It’s certainly a risk with a 34-year-old player who has had a wRC+ of over 100 just twice in 10 seasons, but it’s one the Tigers might need to take if they want to upgrade other aspects of the ball club.