Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Prince Fielder Logjam

by Jason Wojciechowski
More badonk!
Photo by Steve Paluch

Prince Fielder came out of more or less nowhere, to the extent that any man his size can ever come out of nowhere, to sign a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers. I haven't seen yet how the dollars break down year-by-year, and the Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols deals have proved that we can't assume the classic slight rise through the course of the contract these days. Teams and players appear willing to be creative in structuring their deals.

What this means as an initial matter is that if you're a fan of looking at total deal value in present day dollars, examining team payroll situations, adding up the WARs, or other analysis of that type, you're S.O.L. at the moment and you should probably hold your horses on deciding just how good or bad the deal is.
This doesn't mean there aren't interesting questions to examine, though. Like, for instance, what this means for Miguel Cabrera. Sadly for the speculatarati, that's been decided: Cabrera is moving to third base. (Hilariously, he calls that his "natural position." FRAA, which has, over the past four years, rated him as something like a -5 to -10 run defender at first base, might disagree, but hey, we all have our blind spots.)

Fortunately for Cabrera and the Tigers, their rotation appears to be entirely right-handed and only Rick Porcello of the likely five starters (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Porcello, and Jacob Turner) appears to rely heavily on the ground-ball out for his success. In the absence of Victor Martinez, which presumably leaves the DH spot to Ryan Raburn, a perfectly nice player who the Tigers shouldn't feel guilty about benching sometimes, Detroit might benefit from a defensive platoon that sees Cabrera starting at DH on days when Porcello pitches, leaving third for defensive wunderkind Brandon Inge.

Defensive performance isn't the only consideration in moving players around to new positions. Will Carroll has claimed to see a dramatic increase in injuries for position-switchers. One might wonder about certain kinds of switches, or certain kinds of positions -- first and third are sort of similar, for instance, in the types of activities that one engages in, at least compared to putting Cabrera in left field, which I've seen floated on Twitter. For a man of Cabrera's size, the idea of him lumbering after a ball into the alley or the corner on wet grass after years of relatively sedentary defensive play might give Tigers fans fits, and probably with some justice.

So why third base this year, with the aforementioned Victor Martinez injury clearing out DH for the whole year, letting Jim Leyland use either Fielder or Cabrera (or both!) at DH as much as he likes? I'd assume it's because Detroit needs to find out what it has now. If it has a third baseman who can do a Chipper Jones impression (i.e. poor at third, but not so poor that you feel like you have to move him off the position in order to win baseball games), then next year, they can run out a lineup that has Alex Avila at catcher, Martinez at DH, Fielder at first, and Cabrera at third. (And presumably go 115-47.) If instead they have a guy who got moved off the position in July of 2012, either because he hurt himself or he's truly horrendous, then at least they know that and they can trade Cabrera (ouch), Martinez (quite possibly at the bottom of his value), or Avila (a young, cheap catcher who can mash -- leaving Martinez to head back to the position he might not be able to handle anymore, especially post-knee surgery) to make the pieces fit. If they aim for defensive optimization this year, then they leave themselves with an information gap.

Of course, this isn't just a two-year problem. Victor Martinez is under contract through 2014. Miguel Cabrera will be 31 at that point, and Martinez, if you were holding out any hope at all that he might come back and play in the field, will be 35. Joke all you want about Oakland's Chris Carter-Daric Barton-Brandon Allen-Kila Ka'aihue logjam, but any of those guys can be sent to AAA, Barton's a plus defender when his shoulder is right, and Allen has at least theoretical athleticism that could see him in the outfield. No, this, folks, this right here in Detroit is a logjam. But I dare you to find a group of logs that can hit like these here logs.


Anonymous said...

"Add up the WARs" lololol

Lukehart80 said...

Call me selfish, but I'd love to see Cabrera get 3B eligibility in my keeper roto league.

Seems hard to believe he can stick at 3B. If I were the Tigers, I'd view Martinez as largely a sunk cost at this point. You say they'd be trading him at the bottom of his value, but that value seems unlikely to climb back up much.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

Yeah, the great thing will be when he starts the first N games at third base in 2012, thus gaining 3B eligibility in a lot of leagues for 2012 and 2013. All while still probably playing DH for 80% of those combined years because he only reaches 15 balls in those N games and makes errors on six of them.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

All good points made here. The best point of course is that all those logs can sure hit.

Anonymous said...

Avila won't be traded and Martinez will not catch again in Detroit. Do you actually follow the team?

The Common Man said...

Jason's not advocating for that option, Anon. He's just laying out the options the Tigers will face next year. Did you actually follow the article? (Answer: No, you didn't.)

Anonymous said...

Cabrera is no worse then winning teams that have rolled out Pujols, Thome, Bonilla & McGwire at 3b. If Aramis, Reynolds & Chipper can play there he can too. He has played the position before and without the abysmal Carlos Guillen covering first a marginal( sometimes even good) throw across should be handled.

The Common Man said...

Are you serious? Pujols hasn't played more than 7 games at 3B since he was 22 years old. We'd be having an entirely different conversation if the Angels were going to move Albert across the diamond. McGwire started 5 games at 3B for the A's in 1987 (and the team finished .500), when he was 23 years old, and never played it again. Thome never played 3B again after his age 25 season. Cabrera is going to be 29 this year. So no, no winning team has trotted out those guys at 3B after they've been forced to play four consecutive seasons at 1B. Teams did win with Bonilla at 3B, and he was abysmal defensively. That is true.

The other guys you're talking about: Ramirez has never been good defensively. Jones has actually been an average defensive 3B over the course of his career, and Reynolds' teams have gotten progressively worse every season he's been in the league (seriously, it's weird). The point is, those guys can play 3B, but they aren't doing their teams any favors over there (with the possible exception of Chipper).

But again, all of this is pointless. Jason's not saying the Tigers aren't going to win this year. He's saying that there's a long-term risk and logjam associated with what is unlikely to be a productive transition.

The Common Man said...

Oops, TCM transposed a couple of the years. So Reynolds' teams do not quite have a downward trend line in their overall win totals with him on the roster. He went from the 65 win D-backs in 2010 to the 69 win Orioles in 2011. Big jump. Still, they are not benefitting from his play much, especially his defense.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

I'm mostly amused by the flat-out assertion that Miguel Cabrera in 2012 is no worse than Chipper Jones. I don't think even the Tigers know for sure whether that's true.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it says Cabrera is no worse than Larry Jones, that seems directed at the Thome/ Bonilla options. It looks like the others are just list of bad third sackers. As an avid watcher of the Tigers and Cubs, I can say that he has to be better than Ramirez. Growing up watching Steve Sax and Pedro Guerrero play in the same infield on really good teams, I think defense is overrated anyways.