AL Central spring training preview: Big questions about key players
The Tigers have said Miguel Cabrera will play third base but that's a bad idea
The White Sox need bounceback years from the likes of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios
Twins (Justin Morneau) and Indians (Grady Sizemore) need stars to be healthy
This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to expect from each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2011. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in camp and has not yet debuted in the major leagues
The Big Question: Can Miguel Cabrera play third base?
It's extremely unlikely. Cabrera hasn't played third base since 2008, when he played just 14 games there. He was moved off the position because of the poor quality of his play in the field, and has since gained a significant amount of weight and degenerated into a poor-fielding first baseman. As Bill James wrote in his 1988 Baseball Abstract, "rightward shifts along the defensive spectrum almost never work." Kevin Youkilis made the move from first to third last year and went from being an above-average defensive first baseman to a sub-par defensive third baseman and saw his production at the plate decline as well. Still, his move counts as a success by the standards of such rightward shifts. The Tigers are right to make Prince Fielder their first baseman over Cabrera, but their experiment with Cabrera at third seems likely to end before the season starts.
The Big Battle: Third base
So if Cabrera isn't going to be the Tigers' third baseman, who is? The leader in the clubhouse is career Tiger Brandon Inge. He was designated for assignment last July but hit .278/.355/.444 in 64 plate appearances after rejoining the team in August, although I put more stock in his .227/.308/.376 line over the past five years than in 2011's modest small-sample success. Moving Jhonny Peralta to third and letting Ramon Santiago take over at shortstop would make the Tigers better on both sides of the ball than employing Inge full-time.
The Big Prospect: Nick Castellanos
Sticking with the theme, the most exciting prospect in Tigers camp who has yet to make his major league debut is third baseman Nick Castellanos, a 2010 supplemental-round pick who turns 20 on March 4. Castellanos hit .312/.367/.436 in his full-season debut as a teenager last year in Class A ball and is expected to add power as he fills out his big, 6-foot-4 frame. However, there is some concern that filling out would also force him to move off the hot corner, as it did Cabrera.
The Big Question: Can Grady Sizemore stay healthy, and if so, how close can he get to the player he used to be?
Once one of the best young players in the game, Sizemore has hit just .220/.280/.379 in a mere 104 games over the last two seasons due to injuries in both knees, one requiring microfracture surgery, and a sports hernia. The Indians declined his option and re-signed him to an incentive-laden one-year deal this winter with the promise of returning him to centerfield, but it remains to be seen if the 29-year-old Sizemore can still move well enough to play the position. Even if he is able to hold his own on defense, he has stolen just four bases in eight attempts over the last two seasons, and his decline at the plate has been significant enough to open up doubts about whether or not he can still hit.
The Big Battle: No. 5 starter
With Roberto Heredia, aka Fausto Carmona on the restricted list for using a false identity, the fifth spot in the Indians' rotation is wide open. (Given his legal troubles, the fact that he is three years older than everyone thought, and his poor 2011 performance, it would likely remain wide open even if he is able to acquire a visa and report to camp in a timely manner.) Candidates to take over include righty Jeanmar Gomez and lefty David Huff, each of whom started 10 or more games for Cleveland in each of the last two seasons; former Twin Kevin Slowey, who was acquired from the Rockies; veteran Jon Garland, who was singed to a minor league deal; and middling prospects Zach McAllister, a groundballer, and Scott Barnes, a lefty.
The Big Prospect: Austin Adams
Most of Cleveland's top prospects have either already reached the majors or are still in their teens. From what remains, the most compelling players in camp might be a pair of small, 25-year-old right-handers with explosive fastballs in converted infielder Austin Adams and Taiwan-born Chen Lee. Depending on your outlook, Adams might be the better prospect because, at least for now, he's a starter. On the other hand, Adams was wild in 2011 (4.2 BB/9), while Lee's peripherals have been consistently outstanding (11.0 K/9, 3.81 K/BB in his three minor league seasons). If 18-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor makes a cameo in camp, however, pay attention.
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