- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

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.