It was a great day when the Tigers announced they were moving Miguel Cabrera back to third base. So many jokes. So, so many jokes. They did it so they could have Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez in the same lineup. Would they DH Cabrera until Martinez returned the following year? Nope, nope. No reason for that. Cabrera was a third baseman, effective immediately.
So many jokes. There's a Looney Tunes episode in which Sylvester somehow swallows an accordion, and he walks around, dazed, as his torso moves up and down, making accordion sounds. That's how I thought Miguel Cabrera would play defense at third. Literally and exactly that. They would hear the accordion-wheezing from the press box, where writers would ruefully shake their sad heads.
But it didn't really turn out like that. Don't get me wrong, Cabrera hasn't been good at third base. He hasn't been anything other than bad. But he hasn't been accordion-sounds-in-the-stomach bad, either. I remember heckling Todd Hundley from the left-field bleachers at Candlestick when he tried to play left field. After six innings, everyone got real quiet. We were watching someone's career melt, and we all knew it. There was no way Hundley could play the outfield, and the Mets had just acquired Mike Piazza. It was depressing.
Cabrera wasn't that. And as long as Piazza's name is coming up, you might remember his time as a first baseman for the 2004 Mets. It was untenable. The experiment ended with liquified Bunsen burners and falling acoustic tiles. Cabrera wasn't that, either.
No, Cabrera was just garden-variety bad. Defensive WAR has him just under -2 wins for the last two seasons. That's not good. But considering he's almost 17 wins up on the offensive side, you can see why the Tigers put up with it. If he can man third base with some measure of competence, that allows the Tigers enormous flexibility with the rest of the lineup.
Here's what they've done with that flexibility so far:
Gave Delmon Young at-bats
Enjoyed the worst full seasons of Prince Fielder's and Victor Martinez's career
That … didn't go as planned. The idea behind moving Cabrera was that if he could be acceptable, it would free the team to get thumpers at the traditional thumper positions. They had two already under contract before Cabrera played third in a Tigers uniform, and they finally got to deploy them all last season. The result was good enough to help the Tigers reach the playoffs. Still, a risk like that -- one that kinda sorta worked out -- should have more of a payoff than Fielder/Martinez this year. Just on general principle.
Here's how it's going to end: They're going to have one more go-round with the Fielder/Cabrera/Martinez troika. It might work out better, or it might be the season in which Cabrera's defense is as bad as we expected from the start. But I'll guess that it's not going to be a smashing success. Someone will get hurt; someone will post disappointing numbers. The year after that, Martinez will leave, and either Fielder or Cabrera will move to DH. The Tigers will get a normal third baseman.
The Tigers will have three seasons in the books after making one of the riskiest defensive decisions in recent memory. And even though the experiment kind of worked, the Tigers didn't really gain anything. Even worse, if you believe the Fielder contract was predicated on the idea that Cabrera could play third base, the grand experiment backfired, even when it worked.
Look at what happened when the Giants took a chubby catcher and moved him to third. They drafted a franchise catcher and signed a five-win first baseman almost immediately. Brandon Belt is at his natural position right now because the Giants were crazy enough to start Pablo Sandoval at third base.
Look at what happened when the Cardinals took a life-long third baseman and moved him to second last season. They won the pennant, and now they have all sorts of flexibility in the infield.
The Tigers got a Delmon Young.
Two things can be true:
1. The Tigers were secretly brilliant to move Miguel Cabrera to third base, trusting in a natural athleticism that we were unable to see, and they should be commended for it.
2. It really didn't help them at all.
Sorry about making fun of you, Tigers. Turns out Cabrera wasn't that bad at third. But after his second-straight MVP season, I can't help but wonder what the point was in the first place. Other than the jokes.