Three Designated Hitters: A Tigers’ Roster Crunch

The Tigers made a big splash by signing Prince Fielder to a long-term deal. Fielder’s bat has always been a boon, and the lineup will appreciate his help.

It’s the other side of the game that will take a hit with the addition — Fielder is not known for his glove, and neither is incumbent Miguel Cabrera. How will the roster settle this season? And what will it look like in the future, when there are three players in Detroit that might best be put at Designated Hitter?

This season, the answer seems easy, even with Jon Heyman’s belief that Fielder is the first baseman and Cabrera will be moving. Cabrera is a year older and has only once been above scratch with his glove at first base. Moving him further down the defensive spectrum would make sense. Having him share the DH position with Fielder might even make more sense, as the team could keep their two sluggers healthy and still get value from their bats.

Except there are rumblings that this is not the plan.

Danny Knobler expects the team to move Cabrera to third base, and Heyman reported that Cabrera wouldn’t mind moving. Huh.

Cabrera last played third regularly in 2007. Defensive metrics pegged him as one of the worst third baseman in the league (16th out of 21 qualified third basemen by UZR/150), and the embigenning Cabrera didn’t pass the eye test either. There was little surprise about him moving to first base — prognosticators had been predicting the move throughout his career. It was a natural progression down the defensive spectrum. Players are high school stars in center field and at shortstop, and as they age, fill out and go up against the other former high school stars, they usually move their way down the spectrum towards first base if their bat allows them to continue playing.

How rare would this move in the other direction be? How rare is it for a bad full-time first baseman to move against the stream?

Almost unprecedented, that’s how rare. First basemen have qualified for the batting title 721 times since 1980. In 202 of those seasons, the first baseman put up a fielding runs total worse or equal to Cabrera’s -3.8 last year. If Mark Reynolds goes back to third base this year, he will be the worst-fielding first baseman to ever try to swim upstream, but even Reynolds played third as recently as last year. Shea Hillenbrand was a bad first and third baseman with the glove, but he played more first base as he aged. Conor Jackson played 29.2 innings at third base last year, but that doesn’t seem like an experiment that will likely continue, and he was a decent defensive first baseman once upon a time. Jorge Cantu played twice as many innings at third than he played at first in 2010, and this came after he’d played mostly at first base in 2009 — but he’s been a scratch first baseman with the glove for most of his career. Ty Wigginton played more third than first for the first time since 2008 last season, but he’s played both positions with an iron glove his whole career. Aubrey Huff spent one year at third for the Astros after he was a poor defensive first baseman (and part time third baseman) with the Rays, but that experiment ended right there (with a -6.2 run defensive year at third).

So, basically, since 1980 there hasn’t been a poor defensive first baseman at least one year removed from playing third base, who went back to the position for more than one season. There is no comparison for this. It hasn’t been done.

Of course, if the six-foot-four, 240-pound Cabrera can handle third base, even to a minus-five level of proficiency, his bat will make him a valuable player, and the roster crunch will be solved this year and for the foreseeable future. Victor Martinez can DH, Fielder can play first, and Cabrera will muff the occasional ball at third base for a while. And even if Cabrera’s glove can’t last more than three years at third, by that time Martinez’ deal will be done. The team won’t win any gold gloves on the infield, but they’ll have plenty of power.

But what if Cabrera can’t hack it at third any more? Then the Tigers will have two part-time DHs, with a third on the way. Other teams will be well aware of the roster crunch, and the Tigers will be forced to eat a large portion of that contract they just gave Martinez in order to get any return for their DH. In that case, at least some of the big dollars the Tigers spent on their three biggest bats will be a sunk cost with no return.



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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here or at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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Jesse
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Jesse

This team has lost money three years in a row according to Forbes.

This guy just likes baseball. Too bad he didn’t try and sign pujols, would have given them a much better shot at the ring.

Still, i’m pretty sure this one is going down as one of the worst of all time from a business perspective.

Jesse
Guest
Jesse

Also its not appropriate to call this debacle a sunk cost. Today they sank it

Yirmiyahu
Member

Sure, but now that the contracts are already signed and can’t be undone, let’s think about what they should do going forward… You could keep all 3 if you could make V-Mart a full-time catcher. But when he returns, he’ll be 34 years old, coming off a year lost to injury, and was a borderline catcher in the first place. So you’ll have to trade someone.

Trading Prince’s contract after 1 year isn’t a possibility. And V-Mart won’t have any trade value. Assuming he has a typical year at the plate, I don’t think Cabrera’s remaining $65M/3 would look bad. He might even boost his trade value a bit if he doesn’t embarrass himself at 3B this year.

JG
Guest
JG

Really? Ryan Howard or Vernon Wells ring a bell? At least Fielder is reasonably expected to put up 5 or 6 wins. (And he’s making as much per year as Howard is right now to be a below-average-and-still-declining player until 2016.) Perspective, please.

I don’t know if Cabrera moving down the spectrum is as bad as it sounds. He gets a lot of flak for being overweight, but he’s more mobile than people give him credit. In fact, part of his problem at 1st has actually been that he often ranges farther than he should (see the crucial play in Galarraga’s “perfect game”) as if he was still playing the Hot Corner. He’ll be worse at 3rd, there’s no doubt. But it probably isn’t going to be as big of a difference as an error-prone stone wall like Reynolds moving back to 3rd would be. Maybe another 3 runs lost per year (and that’s made up for in positional scarcity).

At any rate, Cabrera could be the worst defensive third baseman of all time and he will still be leaps and bounds better than the production the Tigers got there last year.

Phrozen
Guest
Phrozen

Ok, Howard’s declining, sure, and his contract is bad, but “below average?”

He put up 2.7 bWAR last year and 2.0 the year before. He’s certainly not “below average.”

Detroit Michael
Guest
Detroit Michael

Howard isn’t below average, but he’s getting close. According to baseball-reference.com’s version of WAR, he was 0.3 Wins Above Average in 2010 and 0.8 Wins Above Average in 2011. The post above quote Wins Above Replacement.

JG
Guest
JG

Phrozen: I was using fWAR, where he is indeed below average if you take average to be the commonly cited benchmark of around 2 wins – I should have checked BR before throwing that out there, but he’s average according to the most optimistic value metric, while Fielder is a close to elite player making less money than Howard per year in this contract. My main point is that this is not even in the same galaxy as the worst contract in baseball.

If he’s not below average now, he’s damn close.

Steve
Guest
Steve

Fielder has bounced around a bit over the last few years, and is generally a 4 win player, not 5-6. And Cabrera moving down the spectrum is as a bad as it sounds. I have no idea where in the world you think it’s only 3 runs lost per year. He projected at -40 runs in his last go-round at 3rd base. And at -40 runs, he’s no longer a star player, but I will give you that he’d be worth more than what the Tigers previously had at 3rd.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
Well-Beered Englishman

And Pujols plays third base, too!

Chone
Guest
Chone

Weren’t they one of the teams who’s financial records got exposed and they were actually making money? Even if they weren’t, I’m sure they’re still making positive gains anyway.

Ian
Guest
Ian

No…the Tigers lost the most money in the league in 2010…I heard they’d be close to break-even in 2011 – haven’t seen anything yet.

Brian
Guest
Brian

They’ll continue to lose money, but one would think this deal gives them a good deal at a fat new TV contract when their current deal expires to help them somewhat offset the financial losses. I cannot imagine they’ll be short on sponsorship offers either. Either way, I have to respect Ilitch for treating his life and club like a philanthropist and realizing he cannot take it with him, so he might as well go for it and spend to win before he dies.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

I’m stupid enough to have actually thought considerably about questions like, “If I were incredibly rich, would I be willing to lose tons of money on a baseball team as a philanthropic project?”
The answer to that one is, “No!”
There are too many other choices that would do more good and could even be more fun.

AA
Guest
AA

Ilich sells tons of cheap pizza and his wife owns a massive casino. They don’t need to make money on the Tigers. Plus, I think they make significant money on the Red Wings.

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