Pudge deal opens full-time spot for Inge
Former Tigers catcher returns to everyday duties with trade
CLEVELAND -- Ivan Rodriguez had every reason to be emotional after his trade from the Tigers Wednesday. Brandon Inge isn't going anywhere, but it was tough for him to contain how he felt.
On many teams, it would've been an awkward situation -- a future Hall of Famer leaving and a teammate trying not to be too happy about replacing him. Given all that Inge and the Tigers have been through this year, however, it was understandable. After watching his starting job vanish with last winter's trade for Miguel Cabrera, Inge is back in the everyday lineup at a different spot, one he owned before Rodriguez arrived in 2004.
After all the offseason and Spring Training drama about Inge's future, it turns out it's behind the plate in Detroit.
"You tell people sometimes to be a little patient and things will probably work out, they don't understand that," manager Jim Leyland said. "Well, I didn't know it was going to work out any way, shape or form like this, but here it is. He's the Detroit Tiger catcher. There you are. Take it. See what you do with it."
Leyland jokingly called it the moment of truth, a line he repeated to Inge as he talked with reporters in the Tigers' clubhouse. Inge had to realize something to get to this point, though -- that he could fall in love with catching again.
"I can't tell you how excited I am about it," Inge told reporters before Wednesday's game.
Without Inge's successful job retraining, the Tigers wouldn't have thought about trading Rodriguez. The irony is that Inge only got back behind the plate as an extra backstop to work with pitchers in Spring Training once it became clear that Vance Wilson wouldn't be ready to return.
Inge opened the season as an occasional backup as part of his super-utility duties, progressed to a part-time catcher to rest Rodriguez, and recently became the Tigers' apparent future at the position once Rodriguez's contract expired at season's end. With Wednesday's trade, the future is now.
"We think he's ready to be our everyday catcher," president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Our plans were to make him our everyday catcher going into the future. He's ready for it. So it's a position where for us, we have somebody we think can step up and do that, and we also helped our bullpen, which we think is an area we needed to address."
Once Kyle Farnsworth joins the club Friday at Tampa Bay, his pitching will become part of Inge's responsibility. That's how he views his role. It's a similar viewpoint that he had when he was the Tigers' catcher from 2001-03, but he's better prepared for it now.
"I'm so happy to just know that this is what it is," Inge said. "I'm catching. I can run the staff, make them comfortable and prepare. I can put these guys in the best possible opportunity to win ballgames, period."
The longest-tenured Tiger on the club, Inge jumped from the Minors to become Detroit's regular catcher as an injury replacement for Mitch Meluskey in 2001, when Phil Garner was managing and Randy Smith was the GM. His strong arm and ability to call a game weren't in question, but his offense was a struggle. Not until the tail end of 2003 did he show consistent production at the plate, but it became a moot point when Detroit had a chance to sign Rodriguez at season's end.
Off went Inge to utility work, only to end up at third base by season's end in place of the struggling Eric Munson. He spent three-plus seasons at the hot corner, where his offense emerged, highlighted by 27 homers and 83 RBIs in 2006. Not catching, he said then, freed him to improve his hitting.
Inge signed a four-year, $24 million contract that offseason, seemingly cementing his future in Detroit. After he struggled at the plate in 2007, however, the Tigers pounced on a chance to trade for Cabrera and installed him as the third baseman, putting Inge's future in flux again.
He didn't embrace catching in Spring Training but was willing to do whatever he could to get playing time. He just wanted to play, wherever it was. It was a late April series at Yankee Stadium, of all places, where Inge began to realize he enjoyed it again.
"I had a chance to catch a few guys for a complete game," he said, "and it was like, 'All right, I called a pretty good game. Everything went smoothly. The guys seemed like they respected me back there.' That's kind of when it set in, and things started to be fun.
"It was all a big transition. You go from losing your job, to not knowing where you're going, to a position where your only thoughts of remembering the position was that it was hard to play. Catching was pretty hard for me. And now, I get back there and I'm like, 'Hey, wait a minute, this is not what I remember. This is not as hard, because now I've learned a lot more. I've learned how to slow the game down. There's not as much pressure on me anymore.' So it became fun again."
In an interesting twist, Inge credits the man who replaced him at catcher for helping him make that step. By watching Rodriguez and how he separated his catching from his hitting, Inge said, he learned how to draw a dividing line and not become consumed by the job. He can enjoy handling a pitching staff and still find time to work on his swing. When he was a catcher years ago, anything he provided at the plate was just a bonus.
Inge's progression is at the point now that Leyland believes this team can get to the playoffs with him as its regular catcher. It's an incredible journey from where the season started, and it's one that even Rodriguez took time to appreciate as he talked about his feelings on the trade.
"Brandon is doing a good job," Rodriguez said. "He had a great game [Tuesday] night. He's starting to hit the ball good. And he's a good catcher. That was his position when he came into the league, and I'm sure that he's going to do a good job. For me, I'm just going to continue to do what I do, but in another uniform."
Before he did that, though, he made a point to talk with Inge and give his good-byes. In some ways, it was a changing of the guard.
"He's a class act. He really is," Inge said. "He told me, 'Hey, it's yours now. You take over and do well.'"
The Tigers are counting on it.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.