Monday, March 09, 2009

Healthy Guillen Key To Tigers

It's getting tiresome, seeing Carlos Guillen...NOT on the field. Or not in uniform. Or not anywhere near the Tigers, because he's rehabbing something.

It's becoming an annual summer thing in Detroit -- the Guillen extended trip to the disabled list (DL).

It hasn't been just one thing that keeps getting broken, either -- it's an assortment of ailments. And Guillen's time spent on the DL has been soaring at an alarming rate over the past three years.

Guillen is valuable for many reasons, but two of the most important ones are that he's a switch-hitter (the Tigers have shockingly few of them), and he can play a variety of positions. Of course, the latter has been due to a combination of ineffectiveness and the needs of manager Jim Leyland, but it's true, nonetheless, that Guillen could, at any given time, play: SS, 1B, 3B, and, this season, LF.

Guillen is the Tigers' starting left fielder, but notice that I didn't use the sometimes interchangeable word "everyday" in substitute for "starting". For it's getting more and more difficult to declare Guillen an everyday anything, thanks to his injuries.

A bad back. A bad shoulder. A bad groin. A bad abdominal wall. All these, and more, have knocked Guillen out of the Tigers' lineup for varying amounts of time since 2005. The two worst examples were in '05, when Guillen only played in 87 games, and last season, when he participated in just 113.

Last season, Guillen missed 49 games, not playing past August 25. After 8/25, the Tigers went 10-21. It's partly coincidence, but not entirely.

The move to LF this season is designed to get as many at-bats as possible for as many of the Tigers' starting eight as possible, but it's also being done with an eye toward Guillen's health. This spring training, Guillen is attempting to complete a comeback from last year's pinched nerve in his back. It even hurts to write "pinched nerve in his back." Can you imagine how painful it is to actually have one?

Guillen (left) and Magglio Ordonez have a much better chance of repeating this celebratory scene from the 2006 ALCS if Guillen can stay off the DL

At the time of his permanent trip to the DL last August, Guillen was hitting a steady .286. But that's also considerably down from the .300+ years he was making us all accustomed to in Detroit. Bottom line: Guillen's being shifted to the DL was the white flag; his back had been flaring up and bothering him all season. Typically, you don't just get a bad back suddenly; it slowly wraps its tentacles around you and squeezes the health out of you.

So far, so good this spring. Guillen is playing in the World Baseball Classic (for Venezuela), and has reported no pain, yet, as he gets ready for what he hopes is an injury-free 2009.

A healthy Guillen isn't just something that would be nice to have -- it's practically mandatory, for the Tigers to do anything of note in '09. Not only does he present problems because of his switch-hitting status, but Guillen is one of the finest men on the team. His leadership isn't done with words or antics; it's done the old-fashioned way, with hard play and courage.

Yes, courage. Don't forget that Guillen nearly died in 2001, when he contracted tuberculosis. Not only did he contract it, he played with it. It probably did his body no good, but Guillen played with TB, because that's what he's about.

Such a teammate isn't commonplace, anymore, in baseball.

The Tigers have many players to whom you could attach "MVP" to: Miguel Cabrera; Curtis Granderson; Magglio Ordonez; Placido Polanco; Justin Verlander. But none of them bring, in quite the same fashion, the intangible leadership qualities that Guillen provides.

It would be nice to see Guillen in uniform as often as possible in 2009. For a change.


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