Shift to third will be challenging for three stars
Cabrera, Ramirez, Trumbo eye smooth transitions to hot corner
In about a month, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez and the Angels' Mark Trumbo will arrive for Spring Training and take grounders at third base, moves their clubs are making to keep their big bats productive and active.
If you're scoring at home, that's three championship hopefuls resting varying degrees of that hope on whether one of their biggest sluggers can adjust to the hot corner.
They will sacrifice some defense, for sure. But the return they get offensively could be big.
The question: Is the give-and-take worth it, or -- to draw upon an age-old quandary -- are they sacrificing too much defense for offense?
Teams have taken a similar approach in the past at catcher, sticking with defensively limited players like Mike Piazza, Javy Lopez, Brian McCann and Jorge Posada because of the advantage that comes with having a great hitter at a position from which most teams don't get much offense.
Now, after lucrative offseason signings, the Marlins, Tigers and Angels will attempt to do that at a position with more punch league-wide but of relative weakness on their respective rosters.
The Tigers shocked the baseball world by agreeing to terms on a nine-year deal with Prince Fielder on Tuesday. Now, in an attempt to satisfy Fielder's needs by making him the everyday first baseman, keep Cabrera happy by not relegating him to designated-hitter duties before he's even 30, and perhaps open up an avenue for DH Victor Martinez to contribute in 2013, they'll reportedly try Cabrera at a position he played when he was younger and a whole lot slimmer.
The Marlins found the perfect excuse to move the bigger, less-mobile Ramirez to his right by signing Jose Reyes, a defensively superior shortstop who will also be a spark at the top of their lineup.
The Angels signed Albert Pujols even though they already had two good first basemen in Trumbo and Kendrys Morales. So in order to give Trumbo, the runner-up in American League Rookie of the Year voting last season, as many at-bats as possible, they'll try him out at a position he couldn't play upon being drafted.
How difficult is it to transition to third base?
One longtime scout, who has been involved with all three of these players in one way or another, will tell you it's extremely difficult -- but he believes it's harder for a first baseman than a shortstop, so it will be toughest of all for Cabrera and Trumbo.
"The other side of the diamond is a foreign affair," said the scout. "It looks different; the game's played differently. All your throws are different, your whole view is different. ... You have everything played to your left at third base, whereas at first base everything is played either in front of you or to your right. It's really different, and unless you've stood out there and done it, it's just a different game."
Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken Jr. successfully made the shortstop-to-third move that Ramirez will attempt. And several clubs have won it all with big, limited-mobility third basemen like Cabrera and Trumbo. Two of them were the 2002 Angels with Troy Glaus and the 1997 Marlins with Bobby Bonilla.
The stat to focus on is Wins Above Replacement. In 2011, Cabrera's WAR was 7.3 and Trumbo's was 2.3. In 2010, Ramirez -- limited to only 92 games in '11 -- had a 4.6 WAR.
Since they'll be playing a position they're not used to and defense factors into WAR, you'd expect each of their sabermetric values to go down this season.
But you have to look at the wins the entire team can gain.
The Tigers seemed to be in a bind when Martinez's torn ACL essentially ruled him out for the year, but they gained Fielder (5.5 WAR in 2011) and could have Cabrera spending a lot of his time at a position where they got only a 0.5 WAR last year.
The Marlins added Reyes (6.2 WAR in 2011), and now Ramirez will substitute Greg Dobbs (0.5 WAR).
The Angels added Pujols (5.1 WAR in 2011), and now have Trumbo, Alberto Callaspo (3.6), Bobby Abreu (0.4) and Morales (out for almost two full seasons) somehow teaming up at two positions.
Here's a closer look at each case ...
In moving to third base, where he would supplant the slick glove of Brandon Inge, Cabrera can draw upon experience. He came up as a shortstop, so he has good hands and a strong throwing arm, and he has played 548 professional games at third base, 387 of them in the Majors.
The problem: Cabrera hasn't played third base full-time since 2007, and that year -- at roughly 50 pounds lighter, mind you -- he ranked 16th out of 21 third-base qualifiers in Ultimate Zone Rating.
"Miguel is going to struggle so much with his range, going out there every day," said the scout, who has watched Cabrera since he was a teenager in Venezuela. "The body is going to play slower, I guarantee you that. The mind can be very willing, but the body could be weak."
Cabrera and Fielder hitting back-to-back will cause a migraine for pitchers. But considering that Tigers starters Rick Porcello, Doug Fister and Jacob Turner are all ground-ball pitchers and shortstop Jhonny Peralta isn't exactly rangy, the left side of the Tigers infield could cause a headache for fans.
Why not just put Cabrera at DH?
"Because you owe it to him to give him the opportunity to fail," the scout said. "I think he'd be insulted by [moving to DH]. His pride will take a huge hit with that. That's why they will throw the carrot out to him about playing third base, and then let the decision make itself."
Of the three, this should be the smoothest transition of all.
Say what you want about his defense, but up until a few months ago, Ramirez was adequate enough to handle baseball's most demanding position. And even though he keeps adding muscle and isn't as quick as he once was, he's still among baseball's best athletes.
With Ramirez at third and Reyes at shortstop, the left side of the Marlins infield should actually get better defensively -- perhaps the best it has been since shortstop Alex Gonzalez and third baseman Mike Lowell were there in 2005.
But that's just the icing on the cake. The real bonus is that playing third base should help Ramirez stay healthier and, thus, help his numbers.
A win-win -- assuming, of course, Ramirez has a good attitude about it.
"He was headed that way to begin with," the scout said. "He's got the skills to do it and the offense will profile. This definitely isn't going to be a problem."
Trumbo didn't really have a position when he was drafted in the 18th round in 2004, so the Angels tried him out at third. He couldn't cut it.
"I was bad over there," Trumbo admitted recently, though he added that he believes that 624 games of Minor League experience at first base, followed by a full Major League season there, will make him much better at the other corner this time around.
One problem: Trumbo still hasn't fully recovered from the stress fracture he nursed in his right foot at the end of last season, so he hasn't really been able to work on third base this offseason.
One positive: The Angels aren't counting on him to be a full-time third baseman. In fact, one person with knowledge of the team's thinking said a best-case scenario for the number of games Trumbo plays at third base is actually 35-40. When he's not there, Callaspo can play the position, with Trumbo either filling in at first base or DH, or sitting against a tough right-hander.
As for how the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder can adapt to third?
"I didn't think much of him defensively early on, late in his Minor League career or Spring Training last year, but I thought that by the end of last season he was playing a pretty solid first base," the scout said. "Mark Trumbo is kind of a sneaky athlete. He runs better than you think he does, he has a big arm, and just the experience of being out there [at first base], he looked more than comfortable. I thought he was looking more like an infielder and less like a first baseman later in the year last year."
The hope for all these teams is that Cabrera, Ramirez and Trumbo can look enough like third basemen to let them enjoy a much better offense.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.