Infante becoming versatile Tigers asset
Less pressure as a reserve has helped player mature
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Omar Infante is starting to feel comfortable, and not just in center field.
He was a starting shortstop for part of the 2003 season, then a starting second baseman for a year and a half after that. If the Tigers didn't have Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco, manager Jim Leyland said this week that he could see Infante as an everyday second baseman. Since that's not an option, he'll likely be the Tigers' primary backup at as many as four positions.
He's starting to play everywhere, including center field. Eventually, he's probably going to start somewhere again, in some city. But in the process, his time as an understudy has helped him grow. He believes he's a vastly better player now than he was when he was starting in 2005, and he's becoming a stronger presence. He's still relatively quiet, but his play is talking a little louder.
"He's one of my favorites," Leyland said. "He can play a lot of places. He's a good hitter. He's coming out of his shell a little bit. I think that had something to do with his first year of arbitration. He's got a bigger smile on his face. He's talking more this year. I'm really happy for him. I really like him."
As big as his transition to center is for the Tigers' roster, his maturation has been more important.
"He's got more confidence," Guillen said. "He's feeling good when he gets to the ballpark, to work hard, to get better, to focus, to keep his mind in the game. He's starting to do the little things. In baseball, sometimes when you've got guys with experience right next to you, that helps you. Those guys, they know how to keep your mind in the game."
Guillen, a fellow Venezuelan, has been a key person in that process. When Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez came to Detroit in 2004, Infante was just 22 years old, yet expected to be a starter. He spent half the 2003 season at shortstop with the Tigers before going to Triple-A Toledo. Once Guillen arrived, Infante was pushed to utility work before Fernando Vina's injuries put Infante back in the lineup at second base.
Not only were Guillen and Infante a double-play combination, but Guillen has been a mentor. That continued well after the Polanco trade in June 2005 sent Infante back to a utility role.
"I go with him for everything -- hitting, the weight room," Infante said. "I see the game through him a lot. Carlos is a good hitter, too. Very good."
So, too, is Infante at times, which helped make him valuable for Leyland last year. He could sit on the bench for days at a time, make a spot start and provide some hits.
"That doesn't happen with young players very often," Leyland said.
It's a testament to the work Infante has done on the mental aspect of hitting. He tries not to think to pull as much, and he doesn't give away at-bats.
"I'm hitting a lot more to right field," he said, "with more concentration."
That concentration is tested to another extent in center field, where Leyland needed a backup when he looked at the makeup of his likely roster. Infante has done it in spot duty before, but usually in emergencies.
Like Marcus Thames at first base, the Tigers aren't expecting Infante to be good enough to play there every day, but to fill in on occasion. In this case, Leyland expects Curtis Granderson to play just about every day in center.
That said, outfield coach Andy Van Slyke sees Infante making the transition.
"He can play the outfield. Trust me," Van Slyke said. "He's good out there. He needs a little more work on throwing."
The throwing is an adjustment most infielders have to make if they're used to throwing sidearm like Infante. In terms of the other usual challenge, learning to judge balls hit right at the player, Van Slyke sees him handling it well.
"He's really good at it," Van Slyke insists. "He can do it."
Infante has a lot of reasons to do it well. He's taking to the utility role knowing it will enhance his playing time.
"That's good for me," Infante said. "If you play more positions, I think that's good for this team. When you play second base, shortstop, center field, I think that gives me more opportunities to be in the lineup."
Infante's opportunity to play regularly somewhere is another matter, and a tricky one at that. With Guillen's contract up at season's end, Infante could end up being a potential replacement for his mentor if Guillen goes elsewhere as a free agent. If Guillen re-signs, then Infante could conceivably be more useful on another team.
In Infante's case, Guillen said, "You know where you start, but you never know where you're going to finish. And one day he'll be an everyday player. But playing second base, shortstop, third base, outfield, it's good for him."
Infante started at shortstop on Thursday against the Reds with Guillen not on the trip. At this point, though, Leyland sees Infante as a better second baseman than shortstop because of arm strength, an issue that dates back for the past couple years. Infante said he does exercises for his arm, but that it feels fine.
He'll feel happy for Guillen no matter what. He wants the best for his friend. He doesn't worry about his own situation.
"I want to play," Infante said. "I know they have Carlos, Poli [Polanco], they play every day. I think my opportunity is coming soon. That's how I think, this year or next year."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.