Depending on your way of thinking, the Detroit Tigers’ decision to make room for Prince Fielder by moving Miguel Cabrera to third base ranges from being a questionable decision to a catastrophically stupid one.
Miggy is a fantastic hitter but, even at first base, he is a miserable defender. At third… gentlemen, start your blooper reels. As you’ve know doubt read countless times over, Cabrera was a defensive disaster at third base the last time he played there full-time back in 2007 (-16 Defense Runs Saved). That was five years and probably thirty pounds ago. How can Detroit possibly expect him to be any better as a hot corner defender than he was before they were compelled to move him across the diamond now that he is older and heavier?
Well, the Tigers can’t turn back time to make Miguel younger, but they can make his waistline slimmer and therein might lie Detroit’s secret motivation for this seemingly inferior defensive alignment.
Believe me, I’m the last guy to pile on a guy for being overweight, but this isn’t an attempt at some trite insult humor, it is a legitimate concern for the Tigers. Jim Leyland said so himself:
Because of the size of Miguel, is his athleticism going to be as good coming in on bunts, is his range going to be as good as some of the better third basemen? Probably not. But when he gets himself at the weight he wants to be at, his first step is very quick. I think his hands are absolutely tremendous, and his throwing arm is one of the best in baseball.
Leyland is sugar-coating it in that quote, but there is no denying the team wants him to lose weight. In the present, the impetus for that is to help make Cabrera less of a defensive liability at third. But at a higher level, it is about maximizing Cabrera’s offensive output both in the short-term and long-term.
A few weeks after the 2012 season starts, Miguel Cabrera will turn 29. That should put him in his physical prime still, but, as of last season, the Tigers were listing him at a generous 240 pounds. I say generous because most folks around baseball have Miggy’s weight pegged closer to the 270-pound mark. Even as a muscular 6’4″ guy, that’s a lot of weight, enough weight that he would be far and away the largest third basemen in league history. And if that’s how big he is now, imagine how much bigger he is going to get as he progresses into his thirties. With Cabrera under contract through 2015, you can bet that Detroit management has done plenty of imagining about that very problem. One can also imagine that Tiger coaches have tried to talk Miguel into dropping some pounds, but with him putting up MVP numbers at his current size, there really isn’t much spurring Miggy to commit to a weight loss plan (sorry, but Jennifer Hudson just doesn’t appeal to him).
Until now, that is. Both the team and Cabrera himself have acknowledged that he will have to slim down in lieu of this positional transition. Assuming he has a hunger (sorry) to prove naysayers wrong about his defensive abilities at the hot corner, the hope has to be that Miguel can get down to the 240 lbs. he is listed at, or at least close to it. That will definitely help in the field, though he will still be a liability at third, but where it will really help is in prolonging his shelf life as one of the game’s elite hitters. No matter how much innate talent and ability a player has, it is going to be hard to keep performing at peak levels if you keep adding pounds.
Look at what happened to a guy like Andruw Jones who rapidly went ate himself from an elite defender and slugger into an average platoon-DH. As he ballooned, he transformed from an MVP-caliber player in 2006 (6.3 fWAR) to journeyman part-time player by 2008 (-1.0 fWAR and no better than 1.7 fWAR since). And how old was Jones in 2006… you guessed it, 29 years old. You don’t have to look far to see what unchecked weight gain has done to other modern day players with examples like Dmitri Young and Carlos Lee still around. But you also don’t have to look far to see what dropping that weight can do to help a player after seeing how Pablo Sandoval returned to All-Star form in 2011 after eating himself out of the lineup in 2010.
Carrying too much extra weight for too long simply accelerates the deterioration of a player’s body from all the extra strain and wear and tear. By using this defensive switch as an impetus, the Tigers can hopefully turn back the clock on the breakdown of Cabrera’s physical abilities. Almost everyone puts on weight as they age, so if the assumption is that Miguel is going to add 20 or so pounds over the next four years, there is no arguing that he is better off going from 240 to 260 than he is going from 270 to 290. Let’s be honest, Cabrera could probably drop down to 210 pounds and he would still be a defensive liability. But by losing just 20 pounds now, Cabrera could be buying himself two or three extra seasons of peak level production. For Detriot, that could be the difference between Cabrera finishing his current contract as a defensive liability that is still considered a premier hitter or a defensive liability who is well past his prime and rapidly moving towards being an offensive non-factor too. If that means accepting his terrible defense at third base the whole time, then so be it. That’s a small price to pay to keep his bat at elite level for the duration of their current window to contend for a World Series.