Thirty years later, Detroit has visions of once again climbing to the pinnacle of baseball glory, having reached the American League Championship Series or the World Series in each of the last three seasons. But any notions of a stable middle infield as the Tigers head toward Opening Day were dashed when it was announced Thursday that shortstop Jose Iglesias likely will miss the season with stress fractures in both shins.
With Iglesias out, the Tigers are hoping Hernan Perez, Eugenio Suarez or Danny Worth will step up to fill the void. But until it becomes clear who will play short, Detroit's new second baseman will have to wait for the second half of the club's double-play duo to emerge.
Ian Kinsler, like Whitaker before him, had become accustomed to seeing a familiar face when he looked to shortstop before being traded to the Tigers for Prince Fielder in November. From 2009 through 2013, Kinsler patrolled the middle of the diamond alongside Elvis Andrus in Texas. Kinsler and Andrus made quite the double-play combination in their own right.
Spring Training is a time for shaking off cobwebs and working out kinks. And for Kinsler, there is, of course, the added challenge of getting acclimated to a new club. For a second baseman, one of the most critical aspects of that adjustment is defense up the middle.
But despite the uncertainty at short, Kinsler isn't worried about developing chemistry come Opening Day.
"We're all professional ballplayers and we all know how to turn a double play," he said. "The shortstop going in front, the second baseman going behind, we all know how to do that."
For Kinsler, what develops over time with a partner up the middle is a tightening of the screws, not the basic assembly of the parts.
"When you play with someone for an extended period of time, you're able to fine-tune everything," he said. "So [not knowing the Opening Day shortstop] is not necessarily a problem. It's just a matter of learning the person that you're playing with and fine-tuning things as far as where they want the ball and where I want the ball, and on certain plays, where they're throwing the ball from and things like that. But we're still going to be able to turn double plays, regardless of who it is."
For the last five years in Arlington, the Kinsler-Andrus middle-infield tandem resulted in frequent highlight reel-worthy defensive gems. The two had a great feel for how one another played, and that familiarity bore fruit.
How long did it take for the two to become that comfortable with each other?
"A month," Kinsler said. "The thing is, players are constantly changing, so when you work with a guy for so long, and he wants to change the way he delivers the ball to second base on a certain play, you'll adjust a lot easier because you're there and you see how he wants to adjust, and we talk it out. But it doesn't really take that long to recognize what makes the other player comfortable. So it's not that difficult."
Detroit's new infield and baserunning coach, Omar Vizquel, knows a thing or two about chemistry up the middle, after a stellar 24-year big league career as one of the greatest defensive shortstops of all time. Vizquel said that the situation Kinsler finds himself in is a challenge, but he's confident he will handle it just fine.
"It might be a little awkward for him," Vizquel said. "He's coming to a new team and he's expecting to have a shortstop, and we're still looking for a solution there. We're throwing three guys out there that he might work with, but we're not quite sure who's going to be the regular guy. As long as he's adjusting to each one of them, it's going to be good."
Vizquel is a big believer in the development of chemistry between a second baseman and a shortstop, and he has a lot of experience to back that belief.
"I have to know my second baseman," he said. "It's just too bad that we don't have that answer for him right now."
Vizquel recalled his time with the Cleveland Indians in the late 1990s, when he and Roberto Alomar formed a Hall of Fame middle infield for the Tribe for three seasons, to illustrate that how quickly chemistry between a second baseman and a shortstop develops depends on each individual player.
"Sometimes guys have a natural ability to give you the ball where you want it most of the time," Vizquel said. "It just depends on who's playing on the other side of the infield. Sometimes you can adjust real easy. For example, when I was with Robbie Alomar, I didn't really have to take too many ground balls, but when I had somebody else, I'd probably have to take a little extra to get used to him and get to know his weaknesses.
"That could be the case now with Kinsler. He's going to have to learn whoever is out there, where the other guy wants the ball, and not only that, but you're probably going to be involved in situations that you probably won't be having in Spring Training. So it's going to take a while. I think it's going to take at least a couple of months for him to feel real comfortable and in order for us to turn every double play possible."
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is trying to make the best of the situation, giving Perez, Suarez and Worth the opportunity to seize a chance to become the Opening Day starter. Ausmus said that while he'd much rather be watching Kinsler and Iglesias begin the process of getting to know each other, reality won't permit that right now.
"Ideally, I'd like for them to work together, whoever our shortstop is going to be," Ausmus said. "But this isn't an ideal situation. So we've got to do what we can. Part of that is finding out who our shortstop is. It's not perfect, but it's what we're dealing with."
On what he's seen so far from the three internal candidates for the job, Vizquel said it's only natural that there will be a more difficult adjustment period for them because they don't have Iglesias' brief, yet substantial Major League experience.
"They're not going to be a Jose Iglesias, for example, who's been in the league for a couple of years already," Vizquel said. "He already knows a lot of hitters and he's been part of a winning team. These guys [Perez, Suarez and Worth] have played the position, but they haven't been playing at the big league level. So we don't know how they're going to react when the lights go on.
"Obviously, they've got some good hands. They have talent, they can pick the ball and they can turn double plays. But when it's time to start the season, it's different. You have to have a level of confidence that makes you trust more in your second baseman, and vice versa. So it might take a little bit longer for them to adjust."
If the Tigers' answer at short does end up coming from within the organization, the man one of those three candidates will have to trust is Kinsler. And while he said he'd love to have a healthy Iglesias, the eight-year veteran is confident that he'll be able to develop chemistry relatively quickly with whoever trots out to shortstop when Detroit opens up the season against Kansas City on March 31.
"I would love to have Jose in there," Kinsler said. "We'd all love to have him out there playing defensively as well as offensively. But as far as working with whoever is going to be at short, I don't think it's that big of a concern."