Guillen adjusts game to prevent injuries
Outfielder needs to stay healthy to be Tigers' run producer
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Carlos Guillen isn't known as a particularly superstitious person, but he could be excused if he were.
The Venezuelan came to McKechnie Field wearing green for St. Patrick's Day and ended up with four trips on base and his first multi-RBI game of the spring, drawing a double, single and two walks. The hits were his first since March 6, and come after a hitting session a day earlier back in Lakeland, Fla.
At this point, hits aren't an overwhelming concern for him. If he's healthy, he believes he'll hit, as do many others. But he has to stay healthy. For the last two seasons, that has been a challenge.
"The most important thing is to stay healthy," Guillen said. "You have to stay healthy."
He has learned that over the years and through the injuries, from his days in Seattle to the past few seasons in Detroit. He can't contribute to the team from the bench or the disabled list. He has done his best to get in shape going into the year, but he has also tried to learn how to stay healthy during the season. There are things he could do in his mid- to late-20s that he can't afford to do in his mid-30s, not if he wants to stay in the lineup for a full season.
The shoulder injury that cost him three months last year came about from an early-season collision with an outfield fence. An attempt to go from first to third on a single and an awkward slide earned him a season-ending knee injury late in 2004.
His list of injuries goes on, some of which he couldn't help. If he's going to play hard as usual, he's going to have some risk.
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"I'm 34 years old," he said. "Maybe I have a different vision of the game, a little more experience, than young guys. But I learned that sometimes you need to learn from those injuries. That's why I think I'm still in the game.
"I learned to play hard, but at the same time, you have to play smart."
He isn't going to stop playing hard. Every time he rounds a base on a hit, you can see the instincts click, looking to see whether there's a chance for an extra base. He remains one of the smartest baserunners on the team. But he's also someone whose bat is more valuable than his legs at this stage of his career.
The Tigers need his bat if they're going to have a complete offense. His impact became obvious once he returned last July, producing a home run on his first day back in the second game of a doubleheader sweep of the White Sox. He hit 11 homers from late July until season's end, and his 35 RBIs trailed only Miguel Cabrera on the team for second-half totals despite just 187 at-bats.
It would be a difficult pace to maintain for a full season. Most of those hits and RBIs came batting left-handed, and the switch-hitter is hoping to get his share of games against lefty hurlers, too. Still, anywhere near that pace would make him a formidable presence behind Cabrera in the lineup.
"All I want him to do," manager Jim Leyland said Wednesday, "is produce runs. And he's very, very capable of that. He had a great hitting session yesterday. I think it's working out pretty good so far. He's in a good frame of mind. He's in good spirits. He's the one guy who's made a lot of sacrifices for us to try to put the pieces together."
Those sacrifices have him in left field and at designated hitter now that Johnny Damon is on board. He said he was fine with that when he arrived this spring, and that hasn't changed.
"We're trying to find a way to put the best team on the field," Guillen said. "It doesn't matter to me where I play. As long as I play every day, I'm happy, because I want to be part of the team."
If he's going to be a run producer, it's going to involve much more than home runs or even extra-base power. He's the type of hitter who, when healthy, can be smart enough to produce runs in the hitting situations in which the team struggled last year.
The last time Guillen played a full season healthy, he drove in 102 runs. Forty-three of those came on his 21 home runs, but nearly as many (37) came on his 29 singles and eight sacrifice flies combined. By contrast, he singled in just seven runs and plated three more with sac flies, compared with 18 on his homers last season.
"There's situations where you need to drive the guy in," Guillen said. "Sometimes you can hit a ground ball to second base. It's a long season. It's all about adjustments during the season, and staying healthy. I think that's the key. When you stay healthy, you can put up a lot of good numbers."
For the Tigers to put up good numbers, Guillen has to stay healthy.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.