With the Detroit Tigers far removed from playoff contention this September, speculation has already begun about the futures of some of the team’s free agents-to-be. Among these players, the most desirable by far is third baseman Brandon Inge.

Inge, 33, signed a four-year, $24-million contract in December of 2006. It will expire at the end of the year, however, and Detroit may already have Inge’s replacement in-house: the team traded for versatile infielder Jhonny Peralta in July, and have an option to keep him for 2011. Peralta has cranked seven home runs in 35 games since coming over from Cleveland.

Inge’s 2010 season has been a difficult one, as he has battled injuries and managed an unimpressive .251/.325/.399 line. In fact, for his career, Inge has been narrowly better than replacement-level at the plate. His value lies not in his batting prowess, but in his defensive mastery of third base.

Broadly considered the best athlete on the Tigers squad throughout his career, Inge has played catcher, third base and all three outfield positions during his tenure in Detroit. At the hot corner, however, he seems most at home.

Inge last posted a season with negative defensive contributions against average in 2004, when he played all five of his positions and started 34 times behind the plate. At third base, he rates statistically as one of the league’s eight best third baseman of the last decade. He has saved, in the estimation of UZR, at least four runs per 150 games played at third in each of the past six seasons.

In Chicago, meanwhile, the Cubs head into the season’s final four weeks with even less hope than the Tigers. Their 2010 has been a disastrous story of slumping sluggers, and shoddy defense. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, whose second-half revival at the plate proves he is not yet a total liability to the club, is nonetheless no longer defensively viable at the hot corner. A move across the diamond to first base, where Chicago has stop-gaps Xavier Nady and Micah Hoffpauir sharing time, seems likely during the offseason.

That opens up third base for Inge. Chicago needs the defensive upgrade, and the departures of recently-traded Ryan Theriot, Ted Lilly and Derrek Lee remove some $27.5 million from their books.

Chicago will need to use some of that money on arbitration-eligible players who have earned big raises in 2010. Notably catcher Geovany Soto, pitchers Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall. Another chunk will be spent on a starting pitcher like Rockies left-hander Jorge de la Rosa. Still, there should be enough left over to sign Inge.

Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre, coming off a similarly disappointing season in 2009, signed with Boston last winter on an incentive-laden deal with a player option for 2011. Inge doesn’t have Beltre’s upside, his track record or his youth (Beltre is two years Inge’s junior), and so Chicago could likely reel in Inge with a one-year contract worth about $7 million, plus a club option for 2012.

In the worst case, the team could well afford to guarantee the second year, since another $45 million or so will be available to them after next season.

What return could Inge offer on that investment? Beyond his aforesaid defensive aptitude, Inge has power potential that Wrigley Field may yet unlock. A fly-ball hitter, Inge has occasionally fallen victim to the generous expanse of Comerica Park’s outfield. This season, for instance, Inge has struck 134 outfield flies. Comerica Park prevents seven percent more hits on outfield flies than Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

If Inge has hit half of his outfield flies at home (not likely, but a fair provision for demonstrative purposes), that means he has likely lost four hits to his current home park. Adding eleven total bases to his statistics (the breakdown of lost hits, based on this analysis of batted-ball park effects, would be: two home runs, one double and one single) would give Inge a much more tolerable .425 slugging average for this season.

It must also be remembered that Inge has played his entire career in the generally more difficult American League. In 142 career inter-league games, Inge owns an .806 OPS. That is some 28 percent better than his career mark of .702, and it may mean that Inge could hit in more favorable environs.

All of that is conjecture. It’s very possible, especially because Inge is already 33 years old, that his bat will never again be more than average. Still, given his well-rounded and well-respected defensive play at a position of need for the team, the Cubs should keep a close eye on Inge this winter.

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