In my last post, I shared my thoughts on how Prince Fielder's signing could force Miguel Cabrera to find a new home after 2015. After taking a look at the road ahead for Miguel Cabrera, I think the next best place to look is the sudden change of path he's on right now, and that's his trip across the diamond to third base. Miguel has been a regular first baseman since early 2008, and despite what advanced defensive statistics such as UZR tell us (can you believe Cabrera actually had a positive UZR of 3.5 in 2009?), his defensive skills improved as he grew more comfortable with the position. Sure, every now and then he had trouble scooping the ball out of the dirt at first base, but for the most part, he played a solid first base. I never cringed when a ball was hit to him like I would if a ball was hit to, say, Magglio Ordoñez. Simplifying the statistics some, Miguel was always a lock for a .990 or higher fielding percentage and was going to make fewer than 15 errors over the course of about 150 games at first base. In other words, he would make one or less errors every ten games he started at first base.
Looking back to his days as a third baseman are a little bit more painful. He committed more errors in his 2003-2007 days when he was a regular third baseman with the Florida Marlins, so obviously his fielding percentage dipped down to about the .950 range on average, but his UZR was interestingly kinder to him when he was a third baseman. Every single defensive season he had as a third baseman, according to UZR, was better than the season he had at first base in 2010, his MVP-caliber year.
Before I talk about Miguel playing third, I suppose you're wondering what I think about the possibility of Miguel Cabrera moving to the outfield? Or perhaps the possibility of Brandon Inge or Don Kelly playing third base when Doug Fister or Rick Porcello, notorious ground-ball pitchers, are on the mound? To answer the first question, Miguel Cabrera should not be let anywhere near the outfield. Every single statistic suggests that he would not thrive there because he could not even when he was a rookie in 2003, and since then he has gotten heavier and slowed a bit. Covering those cavernous gaps of Comerica Park would be a disaster to watch any time a ball is hit in his direction, and to be honest, I would rather see the atrocious Delmon Young there than Cabrera. To answer the second, I certainly think the prospect has crossed management's mind, and you can praise Brandon Inge's defense all day, but the fact of the matter is a .190 hitting third baseman who would strike out more than he weighs if he played a full season is not going to get the job done if the Tigers want to win a World Series, no matter how stellar his defense is.
There have been numerous scouts and executives that have said Miguel Cabrera is going to be terrible at third base, but the more I think about it, the more I think he's not going to be quite as bad as the naysayers tend to think. Consider the fact that he plays first base like a third baseman. When you watch him play first, you will notice that on a ball hit well to his right, it does not matter to him whether it is the second baseman's ball or not, he tries to get to it. The best example is the last play of the would-be perfect game Armando Galarraga threw in 2010. Was Jason Donald out at first base? Yes, but the whole situation would have been avoided if Cabrera would have let the ball roll to the second baseman Ramon Santiago who would have flipped it to Cabrera for the final out of the game. There would have been no question about the call for umpire Jim Joyce that night because Donald would have been out by several feet instead of a half-a-step. The fact of the matter is, that ball was Santiago's ball to make a play on, and that is not the only occasion Cabrera has decided to take initiative on a ball to his right, it happens constantly. Sometimes it results in a 3-to-1 putout, other times lead to the runner beating out the throw because Cabrera did not let the second baseman take the ground ball.
Mind you, Miguel Cabrera is not the rangiest guy in the world, but he has soft hands and a strong arm. The reason I bring up the whole "Miguel Cabrera plays first base like a third baseman" bit is because if he is playing third base and cuts off a ball to shortstop Jhonny Peralta, more times than not that ground ball he cut off is still going to result in an out. Is he going to be able to field a bunt as well as Brandon Inge? Of course not. Will he be able to make a diving play? Well, he made them at first, he is no stranger to third base, and he has got a strong arm. Range is the only part of Cabrera's defense I am concerned about, his ability to play the position I am not.
But let us be honest for a second here: if Miguel Cabrera makes an errant throw or can't field the ball cleanly and the result ends up being a runner on first or a runner on second and Justin Verlander is on the mound, is that really going to bother him? The pitching is going to wind up being Miguel's saving grace, they know he is not going to be the rangiest or best fielder on their team. He is not the only player in the history of Major League Baseball that's susceptible to committing an error, and this team's strength was never going to be its defense or its speed. So I am taking the "innocent until proven guilty" approach here and saying the experiment is going to work out ok.
Let me just tell one more little story to reiterate my point about Cabrera moving to third base, but please take the time to ignore the fact that the 2011 Boston Red Sox didn't make the playoffs. The Red Sox had a great defensive and, when healthy, offensive first baseman in Kevin Youkilis before the 2011 season. The Red Sox, however, seeing an opportunity to go out and get one of the best first baseman in the game today, swung a trade for San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez. Adrian's only position is first base, but Kevin was versatile and had played other infield spots before, he accommodated for Adrian Gonzalez and moved to third base. Boston's third baseman the year before was Adrian Beltre, and he is notorious for playing a superb third base, but even without his great defense, the Red Sox mashed last year with a lethal lineup that also included MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury, and an MVP candidate in Dustin Pedroia. Their demise was not their lack of defense, it was from lack of pitching depth.
So the point I'm trying to make is the Red Sox gave a little defense for some offense, and for the most part it worked out. What the Red Sox lacked to make the playoffs last year the Tigers have this year, and that's pitching depth. So, sure, the Tigers defense probably isn't going to be stellar, and Miguel at third doesn't help the cause, but it is apparent they are going to hit home runs, it is apparent they are going to be an extra-base team, and they are going to probably be in the top 5 in runs scored again. If their pitching improves from a full year of Doug Fister and likely improvements from Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, the defensive miscues won't matter.