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100 greatest Tigers #43: Carlos Guillen

When healthy, Carlos Guillen was a top player in the American League.
When healthy, Carlos Guillen was a top player in the American League.
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Carlos Guillen was the best player on the Tiger teams of the early 2000s. The Tigers stole Guillen from the Seattle Mariners in 2004 and he remained in Detroit for eight seasons. Guillen’s leadership led the Tigers to the World Series in 2006. Injuries hampered the shortstop throughout his career, but when healthy, he was one of the elite shortstops in baseball.

The Houston Astros signed Carlos Guillen as an amateur free agent in 1992. They traded him to Seattle as part of the Randy Johnson deal six years later. At first, the shortstop found himself blocked by incumbent Alex Rodriguez. However, Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers in 2000 opening the position to Guillen. He played solid short, provided occasional offense, and delivered the key squeeze bunt in the 2000 American League Division Series to sweep the White Sox.

In six seasons, Guillen hit .264 with little power for the Mariners. The Tigers took notice of the shortstop and decided he could anchor the infield. They shipped minor leaguer Juan Gonzalez and reserve infielder Ramon Santiago to the Mariners for Guillen. The Tigers stole Guillen for nothing since Gonzalez did not play in the majors and Santiago ended up back in Detroit.

Detroit lost 119 games in 2003. Guillen helped the squad play competitive baseball in 2004. He led the Tigers in runs (97), RBI (97), doubles (37), triples (10), slugging (.542), and OPS (.921). He also hit .318 with 20 home runs and received MVP votes. Guillen’s numbers would have been even better had he not ripped his ACL, which cost him the season’s final month.

Injuries continued to confound the Tiger shortstop in 2005. He only appeared in 87 games, but hit .320. The Tigers improved to 72-90 in 2004 and appeared to be ready to make the next leap. However, Guillen’s injury hampered the team and compounded other issues on and off the field. Detroit finished 71-91 and fired manager Alan Trammell

G.M. Dave Dombrowski hired veteran skipper Jim Leyland to manage the club in 2006. A healthy Guillen played in 153 games and finished 10th in the MVP voting. He hit .320 with 19 home runs, 85 RBI, .920 OPS and set career highs in runs (100), hits (174), doubles (41), stolen bases (20), walks (71), and OBP (.400). He became the first player to increase his batting average over six straight seasons. The shortstop also hit for the cycle against Tampa Bay. Guillen dominated the ALDS hitting .571 with a 1.625 OPS against the Yankees. He slumped to .188 in the ALCS sweep of Oakland, but rebounded to slam Cardinal pitching for a .353 average in the World Series loss.

The Tigers returned determined to finish what they started in 2006. Unfortunately, injuries to the pitching staff ruined their chances. The offense was a bright spot with Magglio Ordonez winning the batting title at .363, Placido Polanco hitting .341, and Curtis Granderson joining the 20-20-20-20 club with 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 home runs, and 26 steals. The 2007 All Star Guillen got lost in the mix. He played in 151 games hit .296 and set career highs in home runs (21) and RBI (102). He notched his 1,000th career hit that August and won a game against the Yankees with an extra inning home run at 3:30 a.m.

Injuries limited the remaining four years of Guillen’s career. Over this time, Guillen appeared in 113, 81, 68, and 28 games. His average bounced from a high of .286 to a low of .232. Detroit moved their shortstop around the field during this period. He played third, first, outfield, second, and designated hitter, but never played short again after 2007. Guillen earned his final All Star berth in 2008.

Guillen had one final moment of glory in his final season. On July 31, 2011, Detroit and Anaheim engaged in an intense regular season contest complete with head hunting. Ordonez homered off Angel starter Jered Weaver. The pitcher took exception to Ordonez watching the ball leave the park, but the Tiger just wanted to ensure the ball was fair. Visibly upset, Weaver stared down Ordonez and called him an “asshole.” Later, Guillen homered off Weaver, flipped his bat, and sauntered around the bases showing up the pitcher. Weaver lost his mind and threw a ball over Alex Avila’s head. Detroit won the game and the on field feud.

Carlos Guillen had the tools to be a top 20 Tiger all time. Denny McLain liked to say that Guillen “could play” and was very smart. However, injuries limited him in six of eight seasons. He appeared in only 817 out of a possible 1,297 games and topped 150 only games twice. Despite this, he batted .297 with 95 home runs, 449 RBI, and .842 OPS for the Tigers. He hit over .300 three times, knocked in 85 or more runs three times, and had an .800 OPS five times. Detroit was a far better team with Guillen on the field than when he was off the field.