Saturday, January 28, 2012

Can Cabrera Play Third?

Everybody is talking about Miguel Cabrera's move to play third base with the acquisition of Prince Fielder.  I don't think anybody thinks he'll be an above average defender at third.  Most Tigers fans are optimistic that he'll be able to play the position at an acceptable level.  Most non-Tigers fans and analysts seem to be more skeptical.

Cabrera last played third base for the Tigers in 2008, but that didn't last very long.  Manager Jim Leyland moved Cabrera to third base and Carlos Guillen from first to third before the first month of the season was complete.  While Cabrera did not look good at third base, the swap was made as much because of Guillen's ineptness as first as Cabrera's problems at third.

Cabrera's only two full seasons at the hot corner came in 2006-2007 with the Marlins.  The results for those two seasons are shown in the table below.  The following advanced statistics are included:

Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)
Sean Smith's Total Zone
John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved (DRS)
Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA)

The value for each measure is the number of runs Cabrera cost his team defensively compared to the average third baseman.  If we average the four numbers together, we arrive at -7 in 2006 and -10 in 2007.  Given that he such an incredible hitter, we could certainly live with him giving up 7 to 10 runs defensively over the course of the season.  Jay Jaffe's recent article at Baseball Prospectus shows that the worst third basemen cost their teams as many as 20 or more runs a season.    

Table: Advanced Fielding Statistics for Cabrera at Third Base, 2006-2007

Total Zone

The question is can Cabrera still field at the same level?  He hasn't played third base full-time in five years and he is bigger and probably less mobile than he was as a Marlin. By most accounts, he has good hands and a strong throwing arm.  It is less certain that he has the lateral range to play the position.  With the steady but immobile Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, he won't get much help there.  There is also a question as to how well Cabrera will be able to handle bunts and you can sure he will be tested.

Perhaps even more important than his performance at third is his ability to stay healthy.  The Tigers can not afford to have him get hurt diving for balls or making unfamiliar movements on hard shots hit in his vicinity.  If he can play third regularly, then they will have solved a major positional problem with the alternative being a Brandon Inge/ Don Kelly platoon.  Moreover, his ability to play third would prevent a designated hitter/ first base logjam next year when Victor Martinez returns.

I'm less optimistic about the move than some fans as I think he'll be closer to -20 than -8.  However, I think he will be adequate enough to stay there most days.  I also envision him doing some DHing when a ground ball pitcher such as Rick Porcello is on the mound.  He also may play some first base with Prince Fielder serving as DH some games.  If all that happens, I think things will work out well for 2012.

The 2013 season is a different story because there would be less flexibility with Martinez back.  It's best to take one year at a time at this point though.   

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