Moving Cabrera to third base is a noble, but futile, experiment
At Thursday's press conference announcing the Prince Fielder signing, Tigers manager Jim Leyland confirmed that incumbent first baseman Miguel Cabrera would be moving across the diamond to third base this spring to make room for Detroit's new $214 million man. It's a risky move, one that seems unnecessary given the makeup of the 2012 Tigers roster.
The hot corner isn't unfamiliar territory to Cabrera. He was the Marlins' regular third baseman in 2006 and 2007, and has a total of 387 career appearances at the position. He wasn't good there; all three primary measures of defensive performance (+/-, UZR and Total Zone) agreed that he was below average; by +/-, he rated as one of the worst third basemen in the game, costing the Marlins 20 runs a year on defense.
The Tigers traded for Cabrera after the 2007 season intending for him to be their regular third baseman; that lasted three weeks. Cabrera made five errors in 14 games, and with Carlos Guillen struggling to master first base, Leyland flipped his two cornermen and never looked back. Even after Guillen got hurt in August, ending his season, Leyland never tried to move Cabrera back to third base. Even when Brandon Inge's bat fell apart last year and the Tigers spent the second half searching for a third baseman -- they would start eight players there on the season -- Cabrera was never called upon to play third.
So the happy talk now that Cabrera can, five years after his last season as a regular at the hot corner, having been passed over as an option by his manager on multiple occasions, walk in and be an adequate third baseman seems a bit disingenuous. In fact, it seems more likely that not only can Cabrera not play third base, but that he will, as he did in 2008, have to abandon the position early in the season having demonstrated such.
Consider only the size of Cabrera; he is currently listed at 240, a number that bears no resemblance to reality. Last spring, in a report by Jason Beck of MLB.com, Cabrera estimated his weight to be about 270 pounds, which seems realistic. Let's split the difference and say that he can weigh 255 pounds on Opening Day 2012. Here's the complete list of players who have been regular third basemen at 250 pounds or more:
Lower the bar to 245 pounds and the list becomes:
Miguel Cabrera, who may have actually been 240 pounds in his last days in Florida, was already among the largest third basemen in history (only the two players above, Cabrera and the Giants' Pablo Sandoval have played the position at 240 pounds or more). Now, four years removed from the position and substantially larger, he would be breaking barriers even if he can get down to 255 and stay there for a full season.
The Tigers aren't expecting Cabrera to be Adrian Beltre at third base, of course. They'll be comfortable if he fields the balls that are hit towards him and makes accurate throws to first. Even that, however, was a challenge in Cabrera's last go 'round. He made five errors in 50 chances for a .900 fielding percentage, and it wasn't because he was ranging far and making lots of errors on balls that other third basemen would have reached. In just 116 innings he cost the Tigers three runs defensively, and would have cost them more than 30 had he continued to play that poorly over a full season. To give you an idea, Mark Reynolds, the worst regular third baseman in MLB last year, cost the Orioles about 23 runs (per UZR) with his defense in about two-thirds of a season.
How bad could it get? The statistic UZR/150 is a measure of how many runs a player's defense saves or costs a team per 150 games played at a position. It's useful for extrapolating the performance of players who don't play a full season. Per 150 games, Reynolds' defense would have cost the Orioles 30 runs. The worst figure posted since 2003 by a player with at least 500 innings at third was by Ryan Braun, whose rookie season projected to a loss of 41.5 runs. Wes Helms had a UZR/150 of -33.5 in 2004. So the worst-case scenarios -- very much in play -- are that Cabrera will cost the Tigers 30-40 runs at third.
The issue that remains unexplored is why they're forcing the issue now. The Tigers will eventually have a roster logjam in 2013, when Victor Martinez returns after what will probably be a 2012 season lost to knee surgery. With Martinez, a catcher/first baseman/DH, Cabrera, Fielder and catcher Alex Avila, someone would have to move from their comfort zone, and Cabrera has the most experience at a different position.
For 2013, this move makes sense. For 2012, it's forced. Moving Cabrera to third base and using Fielder at first will create playing time at DH, and the Tigers do not have an adequate DH. Avila is their third-best hitter, but he'll catch. Jhonny Peralta is probably next, and you're not getting him off shortstop. This decision creates at-bats for some combination of Andy Dirks, Clete Thomas and Don Kelly, none of whom is going to hit well enough to be an adequate DH. Perhaps you could play Dirks in leftfield and move Delmon Young to DH. That would be a defensive upgrade while leaving you, again, with a DH who doesn't H enough for the position.
The Tigers simply don't have the roster to have forcing Cabrera to third base make any sense at all. It's one thing to take a huge defensive hit to get your best team on the field. It's another to do it so that you create at-bats for a DH, in Young, with a career .288/.321/.428 slash, or to get a 26-year-old fourth outfielder with 78 MLB appearances into the lineup. There's no alignment of the available talent that is going to make up for giving away 30 to 40 runs defensively at third base. It's as if the Tigers are treating 2012 as a dry run for 2013. Playing Cabrera at third solves a problem that doesn't exist yet.
Even if the math was close, it would be a mistake. By moving Cabrera to third base, the Tigers increase his risk of injury. Any time you ask a player to do something outside his skill set, you increase the chance that he will get injured. At third, Cabrera will have to make more throws, make throws off of dives and on the run, charge bunts and expose himself on tag plays. There's a reason players move from third base to first base as they get older, rather than the other way around. Cabrera has been one of the most durable players in baseball (as has Fielder, for that matter) and the Tigers are messing with that trait. Even a single trip to the DL, 15 games lost, could have a huge effect for a team that's going to get a disproportionate amount of its offense from two roster spots.
It's great that Cabrera wants to make this work. Enthusiasm only goes so far, however. Playing Cabrera at third base is going to cost the Tigers runs defensively, and the runs that they gain on offense won't make up for them. It also exposes their best player to increased injury risk. For all the happy talk that came out of Motown yesterday, everyone involved is making a mistake. They have a few months before Opening Day to realize that and get it right.