Posted: Tuesday March 13, 2012 11:39AM ; Updated: Tuesday March 13, 2012 11:39AM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

Tigers' Cabrera first among equals in season of change at third base

Story Highlights

Detroit's Miguel Cabrera is one of several players moving to 3B this year

Cabrera, a former third baseman, has not played the position since 2008

He has been taking extra groundballs and working to get in better shape

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Miguel Cabrera
Arm strength will not be an issue for Miguel Cabrera as he readjusts to playing the hot corner.
AP

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The day his manager called, January 22, was the day Miguel Cabrera officially swore off arepas, the traditional Venezuelan patties made of ground corn dough or cooked flour. Cabrera had been working with a trainer through the winter with an emphasis on improving flexibility and agility, but the call from Tigers manager Jim Leyland brought a new urgency.

A few days earlier, after learning that DH Victor Martinez was lost for the year after blowing out his knee, Leyland had asked Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski if he thought free agent first baseman Prince Fielder might sign a one-year deal, which seemed the only way the club could afford him. Leyland was told that was not an option. So the Detroit manager stopped dreaming about a lineup with Cabrera and Fielder hitting back-to-back -- until his phone rang a few days later just after he came home from church on the 22nd. It was Dombrowski, telling him owner Mike Illitch had given the green light to negotiate with Fielder.

"First you need to call Miguel," Dombrowski said. "See if he is okay with it."

Signing Fielder to play first base would mean moving Cabrera from first to third, a position he last played on a regular basis five years and many pounds ago. And the only way the Tigers would do that is if Cabrera wanted to make the move. Leyland made the call and was not surprised when Cabrera not just consented to the move, but also heartily endorsed it.

"I said right away, 'Get him. Sign him,'" Cabrera said.

Said Leyland, recalling the conversation, "What you probably don't know is that he's been asking for two or three years to play third base. I knew it wasn't going to be a problem."

The decision to move Cabrera, well heavier than his listed 240 pounds, generated some skepticism about how well and often he could play third base. But Cabrera showed from the first day of spring training how dedicated he is to making it work. He showed up 20 pounds lighter, a result, he said, of swearing off arepas.

"It was hard," he said. "They are so good."

Moreover, Cabrera is taking extra groundballs and doing extra conditioning work. "If you could see what he's been doing every day in the training room," Dombrowski said, "taking care of his body, working on flexibility, doing agility exercises . . . he's been great."

This is a season of change at the hot corner. Detroit, Miami (Hanley Ramirez), the Los Angeles Angels (Mike Trumbo) and Houston (Brett Wallace) all are converting players from other positions to third base. The Tigers have no concerns about Cabrera turning into a decent third baseman, in part because Cabrera is enthused about the move. The early word is that Cabrera will be okay there.

Said one NL scout, "If you get here early you see him out there taking extra groundballs and doing extra work. He looks pretty good. He's got really good hands and he throws well. He just needs to keep working on his footwork, which he's doing, so that it becomes second nature. He may not have a lot of range, but he's going to handle everything he gets to. He's fine there. He really is. This is way better than what Houston is trying to do with [Wallace]."

Said Cabrera, "It's kind of like spring training is all different for me this year. That makes it fun. And I know the negative things they said from the outside push me more."

Ask Leyland what he's concerned about these days and he'll tell you he's looking for a fifth starter from among young pitchers in camp and a 12th relief pitcher, and he needs his 1-2 hitters, Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch, to get on base. "A huge key," he called the question of whether his unorthodox table setters can live up to the role enough. Cabrera's ability to play third base is not even on his list of concerns.

"And he's not going to come out for defense late in games," Leyland said. "There's no way in an American League game I'm going to have a two-run lead and put one of my best hitters on the bench. All of a sudden the game is tied and Cabrera is back in the clubhouse? There's no [bleeping] way that's going to happen."

Cabrera may lose a few more pounds, but Leyland doesn't want him to get too much lighter. The manager prefers him at about 255 pounds, which means Cabrera would have been in the 275-280 range last year.

"Not at the expense of losing that home run to the opposite field," Leyland said of Cabrera losing weight. "I don't care how you look. I've seen too many guys with muscles bulging who look great in a uniform and they have a pink slip in their back pocket because they got put on the DL. Look at most all of the guys who get the big money. What do they do? They drive in guys from first base. The average major league game, unless you've got a Verlander or a Sabathia or somebody like that, is about putting guys on base and getting them in.

"When we beat the Yankees last year [in the ALDS], they had guys on base all the time in the last four innings. They just didn't get them in that day. Give me the guy who drives in runners. I'll take those guys any day. I don't care what they look like."

The Tigers are old-school bombers. Last year they had virtually no speed and played average defense and came within two wins of the World Series because of power at the plate and power on the mound. This year? They are an extreme version of their former selves. Listen to Leyland give a thumbnail sketch of his lineup: "Speed at 1, power at 2, power at 3, power at 4, power at 5, 20 home runs at 6, 20 home runs at 7 . . ." (In order, Jackson, Boesch, Cabrera, Fielder, Delmon Young, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta.)

The Tigers are not going to beat teams with the finer points of the game. They are a good offensive team -- a top three offense -- with the chance to be a great one if Jackson and Boesch get on base. Last year Detroit ranked fourth in runs while its tablesetters (the 1-2 spots in the order) ranked ninth at getting on base.

The switch from Miller Park to Comerica Park will severely cut Fielder's home run total, but, like Cabrera, Fielder is a cold-blooded RBI machine who almost never comes out of the lineup. Over the past five seasons, Cabrera and Fielder rank 2-4 in slugging, 2-4 in OPS, 2-5 in RBIs and -- if you reverse their order -- 2-5 in home runs and 1-5 in games. It is the best 3-4 combination in baseball, which should more than offset the occasional grounder Cabrera doesn't get to at third.

"This year I know I'll see a lot of pitches to hit," Cabrera said.

(Third base defense may seem less important, too, because the Tigers have predominantly righthanded power pitching, but last year their pitchers threw the sixth most grounders in the league -- and without much help on them. Only Minnesota allowed a higher batting average on groundballs than Detroit.)

"If you think Cabrera is going to be Brooks Robinson over there, you're [bleeping] kidding yourself," Leyland said. "He's athletic, he has great hands and he has a great arm. He's going to make the plays he should make, but will some balls get by him that he can't get to? Hell yeah. But I look at it as I would with an outfielder, or any player. You look at the whole package with a player. Am I okay with giving up some range on a ball once in a while when he can hit the three-run home run in the seventh inning? Yeah, I'm absolutely loving it."

Somehow, Cabrera is one of the most overlooked stars of the game. He has started only one All-Star Game. He is the best pure hitter this side of Albert Pujols, he still is only 28 (he's younger than David Wright, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler and Yadier Molina) and he plays every day. In a typical sleepy early spring training game Monday -- a game against the Mets when starters get pulled early -- Cabrera dashed from first to third on a routine single to centerfield with one out (he barely beat the tag) when many a superstar might have jogged complacently into second base. The extra base created a run when he was able to score on an out, a subsequent flyball to leftfield.

Cabrera has earned more respect from Leyland and his teammates by enthusiastically moving to a more challenging position as an established star -- he's the reigning AL batting champion -- which also required him to get into better shape. The switch looks less risky in practice halfway through spring training than it did in theory in January. Maybe there is a wear-and-tear factor over the long season and Cabrera will get more DH starts than Leyland intends. (He plans to give Cabrera only occasional days there, such as when he needs a rest.) But for now, neither Cabrera nor the Tigers are sweating the issue of whether or not this move can work.

"It's going good," Cabrera said. "I feel good. I think it's helped me have more fun. And look at me: I'm jacked."

Cabrera flexed his right bicep and poked it with a finger.

"Nah, I'm just kidding you," he said with a hearty laugh.

As for the ultimate concession he made to accommodate Fielder -- the swearing off of arepas -- Cabrera could offer no promises.

"Off-season? None at all," he said. "During the season? I don't know. We'll see."

 
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