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If This Is It For Brandon Inge, It's A Sad End To His Story

It might be premature to say Brandon Inge's career with the Tigers is over. But the team's willingness to move on shows what's at stake this season.

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This isn't how it should end.

Maybe it's premature to say that Brandon Inge's career with the Detroit Tigers is done after being designated for assignment. By all accounts, he'll return to the majors when rosters are allowed to expand in September. 

It's also not out of the realm of possibility that Inge can figure out what's wrong with his game — or regain whatever energy he still may be lacking, if his mononucleosis symptoms are still lingering — and post respectable numbers for the final year of his contract next season.

That would be a great story to cover. It would certainly be less depressing than the one we've been watching for the past four months.

Inge was never a great player to begin with. At his best, he was more than respectable, supplying 20-home run power and stellar defense at third base. But we're still talking about a player with a .237 career batting average coming into this season. So when his skills declined, it probably wasn't going to be pretty. However, no one likely expected his production to just drop off the table like this.

But as general manager Dave Dombrowski said to the media after Tuesday's 7-5 loss to the Oakland Athletics (one of the Tigers' most frustrating losses this season, but I digress), it's too far into the season to expect a turnaround now.

"It's a tough situation," Dombrowski said earlier Wednesday in announcing the [Wilson] Betemit trade. "Brandon has done a lot for the organization. We would not have signed him this winter if we didn't think he was going to come out and he was going to do very well for us, or do solidly. We never projected him to be a .300 hitter, but thought he'd come out and be a guy that could hit .230 or .240 with some home runs and play real good defense and maybe drive in runs. It hasn't happened this year and I think we're at the point where playing him every day, we just don't see it happening right now."

It's likely that the front office was talking about what to do with Inge during the All-Star break. He's been a better player in the first half of the season throughout his career. What were really the chances he'd rebound?

As much as Leyland may have wanted to avoid reality, he'd already been playing Don Kelly more often at third base. There was no other choice. As badly as Inge's offensive and defensive skills had deteriorated, Kelly was giving the Tigers more of a chance to win.

But the last straw had to be Tuesday night against Oakland. Inge went 0-for-4, looked completely lost at the plate, and as the photo attached to this story shows, appeared to be a beaten man. Like someone who was out of answers, who just could not dig himself out of the deep hole he was trapped in.

The Tigers have too much at stake right now to continue waiting for Inge to get himself right. The AL Central is there for the taking. And Dombrowski and Jim Leyland are in the final years of their contracts, making this a must-win season. But even without a division title and several contracts on the line, Inge wasn't playing well enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup — or on the roster, as it turns out. The team and its fans are entitled to expect the best collection of players on the field. It's absurd to expect to contend for a playoff spot without putting the best team out there.

Whether his detractors want to hear it or not, Inge has been the type of player we should root for during his 11 seasons with the Tigers. He was with the team during its lowest point as a franchise and stuck around to take part in its revival. He reinvented himself as a player, moving from catcher to super-utility player to an often spectacular third baseman.

Of course, there's also the charity work and community involvement off the field that's made him extremely popular and admired for reasons that go beyond baseball.

But right now, the Tigers have made a decision that's all about baseball. And though Inge might feel that he's still capable of fixing his game, even he understands that from a baseball standpoint, his team had to move on.

Is the end for Inge? In his mind, being designated to Triple-A Toledo is akin to an extended rehab assignment. Many believe Toledo hitting coach Leon Durham is better at his job than Lloyd McClendon, who's reportedly never quite clicked with Inge. So maybe some "Bull" sessions can solve his hitting woes.

Owner Mike Ilitch asked Inge not to push for his release so he could remain with the organization. Whether it's on the field or in the front office, the implication seems to be that  Inge appears to have a future with the Tigers. llitch has provided many Red Wings with adminstrative roles when their playing days were over, and it would be nice to see the same thing happen with the Tigers. Especially when Inge has established firm roots in the metro Detroit community.

Watching a player who's had previous success get pushed off the field isn't enjoyable. Inge's Tigers career should have a better ending than that. But there's still a chance at a good story here. If the Tigers do end up winning the AL Central and make a postseason run, this will be an interesting chapter.