If there's something Brandon Inge can't do on the baseball field, the Detroit Tigers haven't been able to find it yet.
Drafted in 1998 as a shortstop who occasionally pitched in college, Inge immediately showed an eagerness to adapt to the needs of the organization. He was assigned to the New York-Penn League's Jamestown Jammers, where he took on an unfamiliar role.
"He actually signed as an infielder, but the Tigers decided they were going to have him catch, because that was the best opportunity for him at the time," said Tim Torricelli, who managed the Jammers and was Inge's hitting coach with the West Michigan Whitecaps the next season.
"He'd never caught before. The way he took that on proved he was a gamer."
Inge was excited to follow whatever path his new club thought would give him more playing time and a better shot at making it to "The Show," and his athletic ability and ambition on the field gave him a leg up.
The man, who would later be called up as a catcher and split time at six different positions in the Majors, displayed adaptability in his first pro season.
"He had a natural athleticism," Torricelli said. "They sort of handed him to me and asked me to work with him, because I was a catcher in the Minors. The thing that I noticed right away was his arm strength. His arm strength was well above average, and he transitioned into catching pretty easily."
Inge dove right into the challenge of playing the most demanding position in the game for the first time in his first professional season. He caught 55 games during the short-season schedule and was the designated hitter 16 times. Torricelli often would give him the opportunity to take a day off, and each time Inge refused.
"One night I'd watch him get beat up real bad behind the plate," remembered Torricelli, "and the next day I'd ask him if he thought he could play -- I remember what it's like to get beat up behind the plate. He'd sort of shrug and say, 'Oh, yeah. I'm fine.' He was a manager's dream in that regard."
Former Major Leaguer Bruce Fields -- who helmed the Whitecaps in 1999, was Inge's manager again with the Toledo Mud Hens in 2001 and 2003 and was the Tigers' hitting coach from 2003-2004 -- also was impressed by the way Inge made the conversion to catcher. But Fields also wonders whether the extra work hampered Inge's offensive development. Although he led the Jammers with eight homers in 1998, he batted just .230, and in 1999, he hit only one more longball in almost twice as many games.
"He's been a shortstop and closer, and now he was catching. It's a big change, especially coming right into the pros," said Fields.
"He had a lot of work to do on both sides. He was learning how to work with a pitching staff, how to call a game, how to block balls. ... He was going through a lot, mentally, for a young player. I think that's what held his hitting back in the beginning of his career."
Even if his power numbers weren't sky high, Torricelli knew from the start that he was looking at a big league quality hitter.
"You could see he had the bat speed and the ability to compete every day that a Major League player needs. I knew that he had that right away," he said. "I figured the higher up he went, the better hitter he'd become. I know that sounds funny, but with his bat speed and his strength, I knew he'd really start to drive the ball with more at-bats."
The Tigers list Inge's height at 5-foot-11 and his weight at 190 pounds; he hardly has the physical presence of Ryan Howard or Adam Dunn. It's easy to understand, then, that when he was fresh out of college he may not have profiled as a power hitter.
"He really had some power with some of the balls he hit, but I didn't think he'd ever hit [home runs] in the 20s [in the Majors]," said Fields. "I thought he had a chance to be a 15-20 homer guy."
"It's kind of surprising the power he gets out of his frame," Torricelli added. "He's not a huge guy. It shows you just how strong he is, especially from the elbows down. And his legs too are really strong. He gets a lot of power from those legs."
His powerful swing may have come at the expense of a few more singles and a higher batting average, but that was the type of hitter Inge was. While his former managers worked with him to improve his contact, neither wanted to interfere with Inge's ability to go deep.
Torricelli saw the situation as "a tradeoff."
"Sometimes," he said, "you could tell him, 'Hey, Brandon, let's focus on getting some base hits,' and he could do that. But his power would drop off. He wouldn't be able to drive the ball as much."
As long as Inge continued to show power potential, Fields didn't stress out when his player struck out or got under a pitch too much.
"He was always a high-strikeout guy, but his swing wasn't bad. He would overswing quite a bit, but as far as pure swing mechanics, there was no problem."
After his first two seasons in the organizations, Inge was sent to the Double-A Jacksonville Suns. There he hit .258 and knocked in 53 runs in 78 games. His solid defense behind the plate helped earn him Southern League Postseason All-Star honors, even though he was promoted out of the league well before season's end.
Although Inge had always posted a batting average under .260 and never hit more than nine home runs in a single campaign, the Tigers continued to move him up the ladder. The numbers didn't always reflect the progress he was making, according to Fields.
"He was a high priority guy, and we all felt he was doing well enough," Fields said. "It's not like he was hitting .190 with two home runs and 15 RBIs. He always did well enough that we could move him up and see how he handled the next level."
In his fifth year as a professional, Inge was pushed all the way to the top. After plating 15 runs in 27 games with the Mud Hens in the 2001 season, Inge went on to play 79 games with the Tigers.
"Switching positions like he did,and considering he never had a great offensive year, he moved himself up to the Majors pretty fast," Fields said. "They knew the club needed some young blood and he could handle it."
A club may run the risk of damaging a prospect's confidence by promoting him before seeing breakout numbers at a lower level, but Fields doesn't remember any such concerns about Inge.
"Brandon never lacked confidence," he chuckled.
That confidence was what allowed Inge to continue to adapt, even in the Majors. When the Tigers signed All-Star Ivan Rodriguez for the 2004 season, Inge did whatever was necessary to get onto the field.
He saw action in 131 games that season, sometimes in the outfield and sometimes playing third base. Only occasionally did he get behind the plate. By the time Spring Training wrapped up in 2005, though, Inge had established himself as Detroit's everyday third baseman.
Since then, he's hit 79 home runs in the Majors, and his dynamite start this season earned him a spot on the American League All-Star team. When tendinitis in his knees brought his performance back to earth, Inge insisted on playing through 2009 despite the near-constant pain.
When his former managers heard about that decision, neither Torricelli nor Fields batted an eye.
"I always kind of knew if he had the willingness to get behind the plate, he would be able to play through injuries his whole career if he needed to," Torricelli said.
"That's Brandon," Fields added. "That didn't surprise me -- that he wanted to play through it. He's the stubborn type."
Inge's determination was a factor in the Tigers' ill-fated pennant race and his grit earned him the MLB Players Alumni Association's Heart and Hustle Award.
"Sometimes," Fields admitted, "that stubbornness does work for your advantage."
Minor League career breakdown
1998: Upon learning that the Tigers felt the best opportunity for Inge to advance was as a catcher, the draftee donned the "tools of ignorance" for the Jamestown Jammers. He led the short-season team with eight homers and 10 doubles. ||
1999: In his first full season, Inge caught 95 games. The wear and tear from the position had a minimal impact on his ability to produce offensively. He had 36 extra-base hits and stole 15 bases. ||
2000: Inge began the year with the Double-A Jacksonville Suns, where he hit .258 and knocked in 53 runs in 78 games. |
2000: Breaking through to Triple-A for the last 55 games of the season, Inge continued to drive the ball hard. Of his 42 hits, 19 went for extra bases and he collected 20 RBIs. |
2001: After starting the year in the Majors and struggling at the plate, Inge played in 27 games with the Mud Hens. He hit .289 and earned 15 RBIs, regaining his confidence and preparing him to jump back into the Tigers lineup by the end of the season. |