Around the Horn: Corner infielders
Tigers have a pair of mashers to take over vacant spots
The following is the second in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Corner Infielders.
DETROIT -- Carlos Guillen is moving across the infield in his fifth season as a Tiger. Miguel Cabrera isn't shifting anywhere after moving north from Florida.
The Tigers head into their 2008 season with an entirely different look at the corners of their infield, and not only in name. In one shift and one trade, Detroit's corner infield evolved from a group better known for defense to one of the most potent offensive tandems in the American League.
While Detroit shifted Guillen from shortstop to first base to help keep his All-Star bat in the lineup at age 32, Cabrera will stick at the same position he had with the Florida Marlins before the Tigers dealt six young players for him and Dontrelle Willis. Keeping Cabrera at third base has become a much-debated move in fan circles because of what it could mean for incumbent Brandon Inge and Detroit's infield defense. The club, obviously, is hoping it has acquired one of baseball's most potent offensive threats for years to come.
It was Cabrera upon whom the Tigers had their gaze trained when the possibility for a deal with the Marlins grew during last month's Winter Meetings. It was the current Tigers front-office group that brought Cabrera into the Florida organization; vice president/assistant general manager Al Avila signed him out of Venezuela. However, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch provided the impetus to acquire him with a phone call to president/general manager Dave Dombrowski around Thanksgiving.
His bat, of course, can't be questioned. Four full seasons averaging more than 30 home runs a year, batting for better than a .318 average and nearly a .950 OPS have propelled Cabrera into the elite class of hitters before he even turns 25 years old in April.
His defensive value is somewhat less clear. After shuffling between third base and the corner outfield spots for his first three seasons in the big leagues, he started manning the hot corner full-time in 2006. He ranked in the middle of the pack among National League third basemen with a .957 fielding percentage and 17 errors that year, but he took a step back last season.
Only Brewers rookie Ryan Braun committed more errors among Major League third basemen than Cabrera's 23. His .714 zone rating, the percentage of balls fielded in a third baseman's typical defensive range, also ranked next-to-last, while Cabrera's .941 fielding percentage finished third from the bottom.
The Tigers consulted with their scouts on Cabrera as a third baseman before they made the deal. Dombrowski said they concluded that Cabrera's weight was an issue, and that his range will improve once he reports to Spring Training with a lighter frame. According to the Tigers reports and from Cabrera himself, he has lost about 15 pounds since season's end while working out in his native Venezuela.
"We think he can play third," Dombrowski said last month. "He has soft hands. He has a strong arm. Of course, he doesn't have the [same] range [as before]. He's a little bit heavier. I think it'll be important for him when he's in shape. He'll be a little more nimble and agile at that point."
Agility and range is something the Tigers have enjoyed with Inge at third the past few years. In terms of range factor, calculated from putouts plus assists per nine innings, Inge made almost a full play per game more than Cabrera in 2006. Last year, however, the difference shrunk to a 2.86 range factor for Inge compared to 2.51 for Cabrera. The difference was more pronounced in zone rating, .803 to .714.
Part of the statistical gap could also be attributed to ballpark and pitching staff. Aside from Willis and Sergio Mitre, Florida's rotation had few ground-ball starting pitchers compared with Detroit.
There is little question about Guillen's move to first base, even though he has played there less. The transition took place down the stretch last season, with Ramon Santiago handling shortstop duties for defense while Guillen started at first. Manager Jim Leyland told Guillen the move to first would be permanent at season's end, and when the Tigers dealt for Edgar Renteria the day after the World Series ended, the transition was final.
He's a different style of first baseman than the Tigers have had in years, boasting a shortstop's range and glove but not a typical first baseman's size. Statistically, he more than held his own, committing just one error in 203 total chances while ending up with a perfect 1.000 zone rating.
There had been speculation that Guillen might play some games in winter ball in his native Venezuela to get some more playing time at first. However, Dombrowski said the team did not want him playing this winter.
For Cabrera's part, he has been playing games recently in the Venezuelan League. He went 9-for-24 with two doubles and seven runs scored in seven regular-season games at third down the stretch for the Tigres de Aragua. He has continued his play into the league's postseason, where he was batting 3-for-18 entering Wednesday.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.