LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brandon Inge is going to get a chance to compete for a spot in the Tigers' lineup after all. It just won't be at third base.
Inge has asked the Tigers for a chance to compete for the one relatively open infield spot -- at second base. Manager Jim Leyland revealed the news on Thursday upon his arrival at Joker Marchant Stadium, and said he's going to give Inge his shot.
It's a move seemingly out of left field rather than the infield, but it's a chance for Inge to hold onto a starting spot and play a significant role on a team that's favored to win the American League Central and compete for a pennant.
The original request, Leyland said, came from Inge to team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who forwarded it to Leyland.
"I said, 'I'm all for it. Absolutely,'" Leyland said. "I'll pay you that respect. If you want to compete for the second-base job, compete for it. How it's going to play out, I have no idea. So there's some wrinkles in here that are pretty interesting."
This is one wrinkle few saw coming. While Inge has played at third base, catcher and all three outfield spots over his 11-year Major League career, and was a standout shortstop and closer in college at Virginia Commonwealth, he has never played second base in a game. He worked out there in Spring Training years ago, but only in anticipation of superutility duty.
He'll get a crash course this spring. Leyland said he plans on having Inge take the vast majority of his playing time at second along with Ryan Raburn.
"I know Inge can play third base in his sleep," Leyland said, "so I'm going to focus him on nothing but second base. Later in the spring, depending on how everything looks, we'll play him at third once in a while, just to sharpen him up.
"But I'm going all-out on this second-base thing. We'll give him an opportunity."
Inge made it to the Major Leagues as a catcher, but shifted to third in Detroit once the Tigers signed Ivan Rodriguez in 2004. With the exception of 2008, when Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen worked at third, Inge was the starter there until his offensive struggles prompted the Tigers to outright his contract to Triple-A Toledo and trade for Wilson Betemit in '11. Inge shared the third-base job with Betemit during the Tigers' postseason run last fall.
The Tigers went into the offseason with plans to have Inge platoon at third base with Don Kelly, though Dombrowski was open to upgrading there if they found a better option. That option for them turned out to be the return of Cabrera, who agreed to shift across the infield so that the Tigers had an opening at first base for free agent Prince Fielder.
Leyland said on Thursday he'll monitor the situation with Cabrera at third, but he's prepared for Cabrera to be the starter there. That seemingly left Inge as a man without a role, leading to speculation he could be released or traded, or that he'd spend the spring as an insurance policy in case Cabrera struggles in the transition back to the hot corner.
Inge could still conceivably act as a safety net, but he wants a shot to move across the infield, not across the league.
"I'm going to play the best team," Leyland said. "If you're the best second baseman and producing, that's the way it is. But we'll see. I don't know if he can play there or not. We're going to find out."
Inge has said in the past that playing on the other side of the infield requires thinking in reverse on relays and covering bases.
"I think it's good," Leyland continued. "I know Inge is in great shape. He's stronger. He's in a good frame of mind, and I think it burst his bubble a little bit with the [Fielder] deal there, and I think he talked about it and said, 'You know what, maybe.'
"He just wants to play. And God bless him, I'm all for guys wanting to play. If he's the best player, I'll play him."
But as Leyland emphasized, his judgment on Inge won't be based solely on his defense at second, just as it wasn't the main criteria at third. He'll still need to hit better than he did last year, when he batted .197 with three homers, 23 RBIs and a .548 OPS in 102 games in a season that included a stint on the disabled list with mononucleosis.
"He's got to hit," Leyland said.
That goes for wherever Inge plays. Leyland, at least, likes the thinking.
"I love Brandon Inge," Leyland said. "I hope Brandon Inge hits .260 with about 15-18 home runs. I'd love it."