Prospect Retro: Brandon Inge
Brandon Inge was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the second round in 1998, out of Virginia Commonwealth University. He was a shortstop in college, praised for his arm strength and overall athleticism, though there were some questions about his bat. The Tigers decided to convert him to catching duty. He hit .230/.312/.419 in the New York-Penn League in his pro debut, hampered by poor plate discipline. I didn't put him in the 1999 book since I didn't concentrate on short-season players back then, but nowadays I'd have probably given him a Grade C+, based more on his athleticism and draft status than his early pro performance.
Inge moved up to the Midwest League in 1999, hitting .244/.320/.403 in 100 games for West Michigan. Very mediocre numbers, certainly. He made rapid progress on defense, adapting very quickly to backstop work. But his bat was a major issue. I gave him a Grade C in the '00 book, noting that his glove was promising but that offensive doubts held his grade back.
Inge began 2000 in Double-A, hitting .258/.313/.409 in 78 games. Promoted to Triple-A, he was overmatched and hit just .221/.280..379 in 55 games. By this time his defense was very well-regarded, but his hitting remained problematic. I gave him another Grade C in the '01 book, comparing him to Brad Ausmus as a good-field, no-hit type.
Inge spent most of 2001 with the Tigers and he was terrible, hitting .180/.215/.238 in 79 games. His glove was solid but his hitting was unacceptable. This remained the case in 2002 and 2003. . .he could barely keep his batting average over .200, and his OPS hovered around .600. He was 27 years old entering 2004, and I was extremely skeptical that he'd ever turn into a useful offensive player.
The Tigers converted Inge to third base in '04, and the switch back to the infield revived his bat: he hit .287/.340/.453 that season. He's been a steady contributor for the Tigers in '05 and '06, and seems to have settled nicely into the .750-.790 OPS range, certainly far better than anything he did while being a catcher. It's interesting to speculate what Inge's career would have been like if he'd never converted to catching in the first place. . .would his bat have developed more quickly if he'd remained an infielder all along?