Looking at the Rays’ roster with pitchers and catchers reporting on Tuesday, there seems to be one major question mark that the Rays have yet to address: a right-hand hitting first baseman to pair with James Loney. The Rays believe that Loney has more potential in him after several unimpressive seasons as a first baseman for the Dodgers and Red Sox, but even then it’s hard to picture Loney overcoming the struggles with lefty batters he has faced his entire career, managing just a .248/.302/.355 career line in 855 plate appearances against lefties compared to .294/.351/.441 in 2599 PA’s versus righties (although that line against righties has to inspire some confidence). Knowing that Loney has a major weakness against lefties, the Rays have to find a player to replace him in the lineup at first base? Who will that player be? The Rays signed Kelly Johnson, who will allow them additional flexibility to move players around, but he’s a lefty hitter himself who has struggled against lefties the last couple of years (although he’s actually done better against them for his career). They signed Shelley Duncan to a minor league contract, but he’s basically been a league average player (101 OPS+) in 933 MLB plate appearances while exhibiting very little platoon split (.747 OPS versus lefties, .720 against righties). Maybe Duncan can make the team out of spring training and prove himself capable versus lefties or maybe Johnson or Loney himself will figure out lefties and be able to stay in the lineup- but there’s no guarantee of any of those happening and the Rays need to find other options. Could a player who could fill such a role be Brandon Inge?
Brandon Inge has never been that great of a player. You have to go way back to 2005 for the last time Inge managed an OPS+ that was above the league average adjusted to ballpark, and overall in his career, Inge has managed an OPS+ above 100 just twice. But that doesn’t mean that Inge hasn’t been a productive player. He’s had a couple of great years, slamming 27 homers in 2006 and 2009, the second of which earned him an All-Star appearance. He has always played great defense at third base and played fine wherever else his teams have put him, most impressively including catcher. And the third thing that has made Inge stand out has been his ability to hit left-handed pitching. For his career, Inge has managed just a .223/.290/.362 line in 3970 PA’s versus right-handed pitching but a nice .261/.337/.455 line against lefties. Even as he struggled mightily the last two years (66 OPS+), Inge managed OPS’s of .717 and .692 versus lefties, and as recently as 2010 he managed a .254/.331/.486 line (118 sOPS+) against left-handers. Considering he will turn 36 in May, Inge is not the player he used to be and was not that amazing to begin with. But he can still hit lefties and he deserves a shot on a minor league contract to see whether he can continue to do that.
He may sound unimpressive and the Rays signing him might some elicit laughs, but Brandon Inge has the ability to be the platoon first baseman the Rays continue to look for. Inge has never played first base as a professional, but with work he could be a perfectly capable defender there and if not the Rays could slide Ben Zobrist or Kelly Johnson to the position. What Inge could give the Rays would be a platoon partner for Loney and also a player who could serve as a backup third baseman for Evan Longoria and maybe even a catcher for a handful of games. Does Inge have anything left? Already in decline and now coming off shoulder surgery, maybe not. But on a no-risk minor league deal, Inge deserves a chance to come into a major league camp and show what he can do. The worst-case scenario is that the Rays will have wasted their time- but if Inge still has something left in the tank, he still has the ability to be that platoon player the Rays are missing from their roster.