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Will third base issues hurt these teams in 2012?
Third base is referred to as "the hot corner" because most hot smashes down the line are do or die plays, and the position requires the quickest reflexes of all the infielders. You don't need a great arm to play the corner position, as Brooks Robinson proved in his Hall of Fame career. All you need is a good first step and an ability to get rid of the ball quickly.
However, in 2012, two teams' pennant chances are gonna rely on how well newcomers to the position transition to the third base, while one team tries it again with someone who played there last year, thus making third base a real "hot corner" for those squads.
The most ballyhooed of the transitions is in Detroit, where Miguel Cabrera, one of the best players in baseball at first base, is being moved to third in order to allow free agent signing Prince Fielder to take over the first base job. Cabrera has played third before, with the then Florida Marlins. In fact, the team traded Mike Lowell, a Gold-Glove third baseman himself, to put Cabrera over there.
From 2005-2007, Cabrera was the Marlins' everyday third baseman, but was below-average defensively. He had, and still has, a good arm, but his range left something to be desired. When he was traded to the Tigers, they tried him at third, but after 5 errors in 14 games, he moved back to first base and stayed there, where he has played well.
Moving him back to third is a disaster in the making. Cabrera already missed time this spring after Hunter Pence hit a ground ball that ate him up at third and broke the man's orbital bone. That should be a red flag right there to put Cabrera or Fielder in the DH role and put someone else at third, but it won't happen because of two reasons. 1. They didn't sign Fielder to be a DH at his age, and 2. Cabrera hits better as an everyday player than as a DH. So the Tigers are stuck with that situation, and the team has the luxury of knowing if they used a statue at third instead of a person, they'll still cruise to the A.L. Central title. Cabrera has a whole year to get used to the position (and lose some weight in the process), and we'll see if this whole idea is gonna work.
The Miami Marlins did a total upheaval in the off-season, making Ozzie Guillen their manager, signing Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buerhle, changing its name, and even getting a new ball park. But the biggest change to the team is placing Hanley Ramirez at third base.
Unlike Cabrera, Ramirez has no experience at third. He has been exclusively a shortstop in his major league career, save for a few games at DH in interleague play. But when the Marlins signed N.L. Batting Champion Reyes, who is one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, Ramirez had to move. But dealing with Ramirez is not an easy task.
One of the most talented players in the game throughout his first five full seasons, he hit a wall in 2011, by far the worst of his career. And he pouted. His temper has been an issue, and he has been benched in 2010 for loafing after a ball following an error he committed. He has been knocked as a me-first kind of guy, and this had to be addressed before making the move to third base.
Now, the Boston Red Sox already tried this position switch last season, moving longtime first baseman Kevin Youkilis to third full-time after trading for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The big difference between him and the other two third baseman discussed here is that Kevin has plenty of experience at the position. He came up as a third baseman, but has been primarily a first baseman in Boston. In fact, he's been outstanding defensively over there, winning a Gold Glove in 2007. But he hasn't been a bad third baseman, either. So when Gonzalez joined the Sox, Youkilis was transferred over there.
But he has been injury-prone, mostly his hip and back,. And back problems at third base is not a good combination. The one-time "Greek God of Walks" as he was referred to in Moneyball is a fine offensive performer, but has only averaged 119 games played in his last three seasons, and the injuries he has aren't gonna go away. So, the question mark with the Sox isn't how well Youkilis will play, but will he be healthy enough to help the Sox go for a pennant? It's hard to say.
Lastly, this has nothing to with the pennant races, as my Baltimore Orioles are not gonna be within sniffing distance of a pennant in the next ten years or so, but why would you put Mark Reynolds back at third base? The guy is a walking error-machine. It's no secret one of the reasons the Diamondbacks improved in 2011 was trading Reynolds away and getting a competent third baseman over there in Ryan Roberts. You know, somebody who can actually play the position.
I don't hate Reynolds as a player, but the Orioles seemed to have realized that his scatter-arm wasn't gonna work over there, putting him at first base for most of the final weeks of the 2011 season, where he played pretty well. But it seems as if Buck Showalter has been struck stupid and is putting Reynolds back at third, rather than putting Chris Davis over there. I hope that this works, but it won't. Reynolds led the A.L. in errors last year despite only playing 114 games over there. This is not an isolated case. He led the N.L. in errors in both 2008, so we know what kind of player he is. Put him back at first and you won't have any problems.