03 February 2012
Did you hear the news? (that was a joke, I'm sure you did.) The Tigers signed Prince Fielder to an un-goodnessly large contract that will pay him over $200 million (American) dollars over the next nine years. This contract will, in all likelihood, prove to be a gross overpayment, but I won’t be complaining as he and Cabrera combine to hit a billion home runs for the next several years.
Now that the initial shock and excitement has worn off, we’re all left with the same question: what do you do with two hefty first basemen? As we all know, there are two answers. Door number one leads to one of the two playing first base and the other acting as the designated hitter on any given day. Door number two leads to Cabrera moving back to his “natural” position at the hot corner (there can’t be anything “natural” about a 6-4, 250 lb man playing third base, can there?).
The first choice would be relatively simple to implement for this season. The addition of Prince effectively and completely makes up for the loss of Victor Martinez, so it’s really just a plug-and-play solution. The big problem arises when Victor returns by the start of the 2013 season. What do you do when you have three really good hitters that need to be in the lineup everyday, but you only have two lineup spots available? You could try to trade Victor, but you’d get literally nothing in return (unless you eat a large portion of the money) because he has little to no excess value in his contract. That’s a less than ideal solution. You could try to trade Cabrera, but then, what would have been the point of all of this? Door number one works for a year, but I think it would lead down a path that ends up in front of door number two.
What the Tigers really need to do is see if Cabrera can stick at third base. So the question becomes, how bad can we allow him to be in the field before we need to squash the experiment? To answer this question, we need to figure out what the differences in the lineups would be with Cabby at third and at DH.
(more after the jump)
In either case, Jackson would play center field, Prince would play first base, Avila would catch, Peralta would man shortstop, Boesch would probably hold one corner outfield spot, and Santiago would (hopefully) get at least 50% of the time at second base (someone needs to play defense in the infield).
The difference would be at third base, designated hitter, and corner outfield.
With Cabrera at third base (option #1), Delmon Young (a very, very bad defensive outfielder) would be available to DH and Ryan Raburn could play the outfield.
With Cabrera at DH (option #2), Delmon Young would probably play in the outfield every day (I would still prefer Raburn, but Jimmy is Jimmy) and a platoon of Inge and Kelly would take over third base.
Let’s explore this using 2011 numbers.
The difference in hitting would be between Raburn’s bat and the platoon bats of Inge/Kelly. Based on 2011 (and figuring 600 plate appearances, 300 each in the Inge/Kelly platoon), the advantage goes to Raburn (option #1) by 20.4 runs* (2 wins!).*To calculate batting runs, I used the players’ hitting values from their FanGraphs player page as a per plate appearance rate.
On defense (option #1), the difference would be Cabrera’s glove plus Raburn’s (outfield) glove versus Delmon’s glove plus the glove of the Inge/Kelly platoon. Before considering Cabrera’s defense, option #1 has the advantage by 6.6 runs (using career UZR/150 at the position in question).
Adding these together means that option #1 (playing Cabrera at third base) would give the team (roughly) a 27 run advantage. So, that would pretty much be Cabrera’s margin for suckiness at third base in order for him to “work” there. He has to be no worse than 27 runs below average (on the season).
Could he possibly be that bad? Mark Reynolds was the worst third baseman in baseball last year with a -30 UZR/150 (his “real” UZR third was -22.8, but he only played about three-quarters of his games there). He’s one of only two players since 2001 to have a UZR/150 worse than 27.0 in a season (of players who made 3B their primary position). The players were Reynolds last season and Ryan Braun in 2007.
Cabrera was never a good third baseman, but his career UZR/150 at the position is -4.5. He hasn’t played it with any regularity since 2007 (and he’s added bulk since then), but he would have to be six times worse now to hit the -27.0 mark.
Cabrera has a career -2.7 UZR/150 at first base. Using a quick positional adjustment rule of thumb (that third base is approximately 12 to 15 runs “harder” than 1B), we could project Cabrera to be something like -15 to -18 runs at third base. That’s very, very bad, and it would put Cabrera in the running for worst third baseman of the season, but it would still be above our estimated break even point by about 10 runs (or one win!).
After looking at all of this, I really hope the Tigers stick it out with Cabrera at 3B for as long as possible. Allow him time to work out some of the kinks and re-learn the position. If he can get to the point where he’s only really bad in the field (and not really, really bad), then it will be worth having him out there, even if it still looks ugly.
Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. You can follow him on Twitter (@snyder_matthew)