The recent acquisition of Prince Fielder has many present and future implications for the Tigers. One of the primary topics of conversation that developed from that signing and the subsequent reassignment of Miguel Cabrera to 3b is the Tiger’s defense. The fair assumption that most have been making is that the change from Cabrera to Fielder at first base hurts the team defense, that the change from Inge/Kelly to Cabrera at 3b hurts the team defense, and that generally, the team defense is now inferior to where it was a year ago.
Everyone seems to be expecting the worst with this change, specifically for Doug Fister and Rick Porcello, two groundball heavy pitchers. I have heard the sentiment expressed that the Tigers now have three DHs (Cabrera, Fielder, and Young). Highly respected baseball people have wondered aloud just how long the Tigers can ‘survive’ with this arrangement. Many have suggested that Cabrera is very likely to not last at 3B over the course of the entire season. Is it really doom and gloom for the Tigers this season?
First, Miguel Cabrera has been a -2.7 UZR/150 games at 1b since converting to that position with the Tigers. Meanwhile, over his career, Prince Fielder has been a -6.4 UZR/150 games player at first base over his career. This is probably the easiest position to analyze. Assuming Prince gets the vast majority of time at 1b, he is an obvious downgrade. However, while he is well below average he is only 3.7 runs different over 150 games than Miguel Cabrera. For some perspective distributed over those 150 games it amounts to a .024 runs per game difference.
Third base is a bit more complicated. The last time Miguel Cabrera played 3b full time was 2007 for the Marlins. He did manage 14 games at 3b for the Tigers in 2008 and put in an abysmal display. However, that was an extremely small sample size. For his career Cabrera is a -4.5 UZR/150 fielder at 3b. That figure is certainly below average but a long way from so putrid that he would have to be moved off the position.
The popular run estimator for Cabrera has been somewhere in the range of -15 to -25 UZR/150 games. That level of incompetence would make Cabrera the worst 3b fielder in the game among qualified 3b. Players such as Mark Reynolds, Wilson Betemit and Edwin Encarnacion clock in at minus 10-15 runs but averaging a solid -20 runs is fairly unheard of over a significant sample. Around 2007, when Cabrera was still playing 3b, he was about 260 lbs. The last few years estimations of his weight have risen to about 280 lbs if not a bit more. However, news of Cabrera’s weight loss this offseason has been widely disseminated. In fact, he appeared looking very trim with Hanley Ramirez in January. Reports have Cabrera at around 250-260 again with a lot more of that being in muscle mass than in 2007.
Now it would be too easy to say, ‘Hey look Miguel is in shape, therefore he must be the same at 3b as in 2007’. In this case, because it has been a handful of years since Miguel played third, a tougher position on the defensive spectrum, one would have to assume that he probably will not be as capable as he was in 2007 even if he is in shape. That said, the Tigers have apparently been ‘thrilled’ with his work there so far. Take that with a grain of salt but believe what your eyes tell you. Miguel is in shape this spring training, there’s not much question about that. He has impressed his coaches so far and he was never really as ‘bad’ defensively as people like to suggest when he did play the position. To be sure below average is not the same thing as intolerable.
It is reasonable to assume Miguel will be even more below average than he once was, but -10 to -15 runs is far reasonable than anything above -15 UZR/150 as a true defensive value. That may be bad but it is substantially better than Ryan Raburn at 2b (-23.8 UZR/150 career) and only, at worst, as bad as Delmon Young in LF (-14 UZR/150 career).
Further we have to also consider who Miguel is replacing. Brandon Inge saw over 100 games at the position in 2011 where he posted a 3.3 UZR/150 (5.6 UZR/150 career, I will use the more recent UZR’s around 3 here because he has steadily declined since 2006 with age and lingering knee problems). Even with declining athleticism Inge is still an above average defender at the hot corner. However, the Tigers also saw 40 games of Wilson Betemit (-14 UZR/150 career at 3b) and a few games of Don Kelly (7 UZR/150 career in limited time). Bringing them all together the Tigers probably received close to -.75ish UZR/150 out of the position thanks to Betemit’s awful 40 games. So the net difference is likely to be between -9 and -14 runs.
Of course Miguel and/or Prince both figure to see time at DH. However, the bigger issue for the Tigers just might be the significant time both Young and Raburn (at 2b specifically) see in the field. Young saw almost 40 games in LF last year for the Tigers and that number figures to increase. Similarly because of Young’s presence Raburn might see a heavier load at 2b than the 50+ games he saw last season. Raburn is actually an above average LF (6.8 UZR/150 career in a decent sample) and so the loss from him to Young could be substantial if Young does not see significant time at DH. The Tigers could feasibly go from 0-2 UZR/150 in LF to -10 UZR netting a max difference of -12. Similarly if Ramon Santiago sees less playing time than his 75 games last season (roughly a 4 UZR/150 player regressing his last four years and excluding his major outlier in 2003). Just a 35 game swing from Raburn to Santiago would equate to a 5 run loss. This arrangement on the whole could net a -17 differential.
That said, I have a hard time imagining a scenario in which the Tigers will not use one of Fielder/Cabrera/Young/Raburn at dh thus minimizing this damage. Young is probably the best candidate for DH because you do not sacrifice a bat (Raburn is the replacement in LF v. Inge at 3b) and he is probably just as poor as Cabrera at his main position. Either way, because Young and Cabrera have roughly equal liability in the field and Raburn and Inge offer similar upgrades in the field, the difference can probably be safely halved overall from about -21 to -26 runs to -8 to -13 runs total.
The expectation of run loss at that point becomes roughly -13 – 3.7 (Cabrera to Fielder) – 5 (Santiago to Raburn) or almost -22 runs of difference in total. The Tigers can and will survive that difference (about .125 runs per 9 innings). Further Tigers pitchers will survive that total. Doug Fister and Rick Porcello should survive the Tigers defense. Even assuming that the infield defense will affect them more, the impact should not be more than about .25 in ERA.
Finally, this scenario in my opinion considers the probable worst case. It is certainly possible that Cabrera is merely below average at 3b rather than terrible. It is also possible the team decides to play Delmon Young at DH the vast majority of the time. The Tigers certainly will not ‘wow’ fans with their fielding but the impact of the Fielder signing on their defense is probably overstated.