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Infante gives Tigers needed stability at second

DETROIT -- The Tigers have gone into Spring Training with a question mark at second base in each of the past three seasons. The position was filled by different players each year, none of whom are currently with the club.

That's how much the revolving door has turned since the Tigers lost Placido Polanco to free agency three years ago. That's how much it means for the Tigers to have Omar Infante back for next season.

Equally important, he should be ready for the start of the season. Though Infante underwent surgery for a fractured hand last month, he's expected to be fully recovered in time for an offseason training program and full strength for Spring Training. As broken bones have gone for Tigers players in recent years, this one should have a minimal impact on next season.

For at least this year, the revolving door has stopped.

"That's a treat for a manager," Jim Leyland said last week at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn. "If you can pencil a guy in there every day at a position and you're not worried about picking and choosing against a certain pitcher, other than to give a guy off, that's a total luxury."

At those positions up the middle, particularly, stability is a key. When the stability comes from a strong defensive player, it's a godsend.

The Giants benefited from that down the stretch last season with Marco Scutaro, who became nothing short of a postseason hero in San Francisco's run to the World Series and through Detroit. That explains in large part how Scutaro garnered a three-year, $20 million deal at age 37.

The Rangers have benefited from their stability with Ian Kinsler, which is why Texas signed him to a five-year, $75 contract extension at the start of this past season -- which would have been his contract year.

From Yankees All-Star Robinson Cano to Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips, Red Sox stalwart Dustin Pedroia to Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist, stability and quality at second base means a lot for contending teams. For 2 1/2 years, the Tigers had been winning in spite of what they had at second. This past postseason showed what a difference a productive second baseman could make.

Now, they're hoping that stability yields better success next season.

Going by the Bill James defensive metric of runs saved, Infante ranked seventh among Major League everyday second basemen last season with six. His 4.95 Range Factor ranked fifth highest, despite a rather high total of 17 errors. In comparison to recent history for Tigers second basemen, though, it was stellar.

According to the same metrics from the latest edition of the Bill James Handbook, Ryan Raburn cost the Tigers three runs in just 31 starts at second base. Ramon Santiago ranked right around average with a negative-one rating in his 71 games, 45 of them starts. Raburn's 3.94 Range Factor equates to a full play less over the course of a nine-inning game.

Infante had a higher Range Factor with the Marlins in 2011, and just about the same with the Braves in 2010. The Tigers haven't had a second baseman post a 5.00 Range Factor or better with more than 50 starts since Polanco in 2009. But then, it's difficult to find another Tigers second baseman who had started that many games in a season for them.

Switch the criteria to Ultimate Zone Rating, the defensive metric cited by many in the MVP argument between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, and Infante ranks near the top of the game, finishing second behind Darwin Barney. Add in his numbers from the previous season, and he ranks third in the Majors in UZR since becoming an everyday second baseman again two years ago.

Long story short, Infante's athleticism allows him to not only get to more ground balls, but make more plays on them. The same raw tools that Tigers officials saw from him as an up-and-coming prospect a decade ago, then as an everyday second baseman in 2004 and 2005, now have more polish on them.

For a Tigers infield that was challenged on range early and often last season, Infante's presence makes a difference. The improved range is pivotal, especially up the middle, where Jhonny Peralta seemingly had more territory to cover after the Tigers' infield shuffle last winter.

Detroit Tigers, Omar Infante