Inge a polarizing figure in Michigan

Apparently, Miguel Cabrera is going to be all right.

The Tigers acknowledged Tuesday that their superstar will miss at least the next week after sustaining a fracture below his right eye on a bad-hop ground ball. The team hasn’t said for certain that Cabrera will be back in time for Opening Day, but that appears possible.

Cabrera has been the best offensive player in the American League over the past three seasons. He is a perennial MVP candidate who is learning third base to make room for the almost-as-prolific Prince Fielder. He is, by any measure, one of the most indispensable players in the major leagues.

Naturally, his injury inspired several tweets about what all of this means for Brandon Inge.

Irrational but true. That reaction must sound absurd to readers in 49 states. Here in Michigan, it’s a standard follow-up question to most news events. (We’re actually awaiting comment from Inge on the consent agreement negotiations between Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.)

Already, Tigers fans are wondering if Cabrera’s absence means Inge will return to third base. That’s not the plan. Inge is still competing for the everyday job at second. As if to quell such speculation before it started, manager Jim Leyland sent Danny Worth to play third base in Tuesday’s game against the Braves. Inge didn’t start. But he’s still on the roster. And that alone is kindling for a four-alarm brawl in certain precincts within our pleasant peninsulas.

You see, around here, there is no such thing as neutrality on the subject of Charles Brandon Inge. He has been, at various times in his 11 seasons, the most loved and loathed player on the team.

He knows it, too.

“It’s either one or the other,” he said, grinning, during a conversation earlier this month.

When Gallup canvasses Michigan residents for the upcoming election, I implore them to add one bonus question at the end: “Brandon Inge, favorable or unfavorable?” He may not be as popular as he once was — last year’s .197 batting average didn’t help — but no one would punt by indicating “never heard of” or “no opinion.” Inge is as polarizing locally as Tim Tebow is nationally.

To his detractors, he is the most overrated .235 hitter in baseball history. To his devotees, he is adored because, well, he’s still here. During his first three seasons, he batted .180, .202 and .203 for Detroit teams that lost 96, 106 and 119 games. Inge was so obscure (and the Tigers so irrelevant) that he once played on an Ann Arbor rec softball team without being recognized until near the end of the season.

Slowly, the team improved. Inge did, too. But then he lost his job to Ivan Rodriguez … then Cabrera … and now Cabrera/Fielder.

Before the 2008 season, the Tigers made public their intent to trade Inge. They spent several months trying to get rid of his contract. No takers.

Last season, after a bout with mononucleosis hollowed his energy and batting average, the Tigers sent Inge through waivers to the minor leagues. Again, no one put in a claim.

He fits the ethos of Detroit: frequently snubbed, famously inefficient, surprisingly resilient.

He has stuck around, in a way that makes you believe he always will. He makes his offseason home here. He is a benefactor of the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. But the truth is that this season might be the end of Inge in Detroit. He’s in the last year of his contract. He turns 35 in May. Even if he wins the job at second base, it’s hard to see him staking out a big role in the Tigers’ future.

So I asked Inge where he will be in a year.

“One year from right now?” he asked. “I don’t know. Somewhere after I just hit 30 bombs.”

See what I mean? Inge has hit just 16 home runs in his last 883 plate appearances. But he says he’s going to double that during a season in which he has yet to secure an everyday job. The haters will say he’s delusional. The believers will cheer his endless optimism.

“Ten good years and one bad year doesn’t make a bad player,” Inge told me in Lakeland one afternoon. “I had one bad season. For me, it’s the best thing that ever happened, because there’s no way anyone’s going to hold me down this year.”

Before you dismiss the 30-homer boast, remember that he hit 27 homers in 2006 … and another 27 three years later … and he’s in terrific shape after a rigorous offseason program with former U-M strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis … and, hey, maybe he needed 4,606 big-league at-bats to discover a method for laying off the low-and-away slider.

At the moment, though, it’s hard to decipher what Inge’s role will be. Ryan Raburn, the pre-camp favorite to win the second base job, is raking right now. So is Delmon Young, whose presence in left field suggests Raburn (an outfielder, as well) must play second or serve as the designated hitter in order to make the lineup on an everyday basis.

Inge, meanwhile, has the lowest OPS of any Tiger with more than 25 spring at-bats. In this instance, Grapefruit League numbers matter: Inge asked for a chance to win the job and has yet to distinguish himself. He has shown he can handle the position defensively, which was never in doubt. Offensively, though, Raburn outperformed him during the 2010 regular season, 2011 regular season and 2012 spring training. That is not a small sample size.

Inge, though, always has survived in the strangest of ways. He’s the guy who swings at pitches a foot outside then turns around a 0-2 fastball from the untouchable Alexi Ogando to tie Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Like Detroit itself, Inge can frustrate and inspire — sometimes in the same inning.

It would have been un-Inge-like for him to show up in Lakeland, hit .400 and force the Tigers’ decision-makers to give him an everyday role. It would be equally out of character for him to fade away quietly. Fourteen years after the Tigers drafted him, and 11 years after his big-league debut, Inge is right where he always has been. I, for one, am happy about that. But I can’t say that I speak for all my neighbors.

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