- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Earlier this week Tigers manager Jim Leyland announced he was going to switch the positions of corner infielders Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen, which seemed like an unprecedented move to me. First of all, how many current first basemen are capable of even playing third base respectably, and better than the current guy? Maybe Doug Mientkiewicz in Pittsburgh could play anywhere, but there's a reason why most first basemen play, um, first base.
On the surface, this seems like a minor move by Leyland, but I think there are significant repercussions not only for the Tigers, but for fantasy owners. Cabrera is a brutal third baseman, by the way, and he didn't get a quadrillion-dollar contract based on his range or arm. It's his bat. One never knows how a player reacts to a position change, when he leaves a familiar spot to go elsewhere because he was hurting the team, but I think it has little impact emotionally and statistically. Cabrera can rake, he'll rake anywhere. Same with Ryan Braun. His low walk rate and batting average are not because he was moved from third base to left field, trust me.
The Tigers improve their defense in one swift move, which in turn aids the pitching staff. It might be only a win or two over the course of a season, but Cabrera wasn't only making errors (.900 fielding percentage), he wasn't getting to grounders. Let's just say he wasn't pulling a Rafael Furcal and getting to more grounders than most, which makes Furcal's error totals acceptable. That's the thing with Furcal, and other sometimes acrobatic shortstops. Sure, they make errors, more than guys like Cal Ripken did, but they get to so many more balls, it's worth it. Range is important. I remain befuddled as to how arguably the most extreme ground-ball pitcher in the American League (Chien-Ming Wang) gets away with this with Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano up the middle. And yes, I did have to go there.
Guillen was moved from shortstop to first base this offseason in part because the team realized he wasn't a very good shortstop, and the Tigers wanted to keep him healthy. Then the Edgar Renteria trade fell into the Tigers' lap, and it was a can't-miss. Guillen hits like a corner infielder anyway. He won't be winning a gold glove at the hot corner, but neither will Bill Hall in Milwaukee. We've already seen how much better Jeff Suppan is, however, with Braun not at third base. Detroit's Kenny Rogers, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman are not ground-ball pitchers, but this move won't hurt their numbers. We should finally see the change take effect this weekend, when Gary Sheffield assumes the designated hitter role, and Guillen's balky knee is healthy enough to allow him to play the field. In the meantime, the Tigers do have a strong defender in Brandon Inge, and based on how the team has been scoring this week, they can afford his bat in the nine-hole.
From a fantasy aspect, any added eligibility is not only a good thing, but underrated, even with non-scarce positions. For example, in one of my keeper leagues I have owned Cabrera since before he was called up by the Marlins in 2003, and he was eligible in the outfield his first few seasons. I also have on that team David Wright and Chone Figgins. That's a crowd, and my utility spot is always filled. Currently my first baseman, due to circumstances that aren't ideal, is Eric Hinske. Oh yeah I could use that first-base eligibility on Cabrera! As for Guillen, in about three weeks he'll be the only player I can find other than Mark Loretta with eligibility at first, short and third base. This absolutely comes in handy during a fantasy season, and Guillen is a lot better than Loretta at the plate. If I'm missing someone else with this odd eligibility quirk, let me know!
Good for the Tigers, and for Leyland for realizing he could make his team better just by making a simple move. He also helped the fantasy baseball world, if ever so slightly.
I am always paying attention to fantasy baseball eligibility, even though I am not currently in any leagues in which one game allows you to move a player there. I was in such a league the year Mark McGwire became a second baseman (though he never actually played in the field). Kirby Puckett played three career games at shortstop, and four at second and third. In simulation leagues, sometimes a player gets a fielding rating from just playing a position. Chipper Jones got a few innings in at shortstop last year. Greg Dobbs mans second base for me in a league! It all matters!
Other than what the Tigers are doing, here are random thoughts I have on other eligibility quirks this season, or things to watch for.
Fun at second base: Yes, boys and girls, Albert Pujols did actually don a second baseman's glove. This happened just a few days ago, and when I saw it I did a double take, realizing quickly that the new second baseman was a whole lot larger than either Adam Kennedy or Aaron Miles. An injury to shortstop Cesar Izturis forced Tony LaRussa to juggle a bit, and Pujols seemed a better fit to play second base than Jason LaRue, who went to first. Anyway, in those one-game eligibility leagues, which I don't think represent fantasy well in the first place because it's too great an advantage, the Pujols owner can use him at second base. Congrats! Note that the Cubs also moved Alfonso Soriano to second base for an inning, and he handled two chances. That's a range factor of 18.00! Ryne Sandberg, watch out.
Other odd one-gamers: We joked about Mientkiewicz above, but are you aware he's already played three games at third base for Pittsburgh? He still can't hit a lick, so it's largely irrelevant for fantasy, but what does it say about Jose Bautista? Pedro Feliz, who will be hitting more than 20 home runs this season for the Phillies, played two innings at shortstop. In 2004 Feliz played in 20 or more games at first, short and third, a pre-Guillen if you will. I don't think shortstop is terribly weak this season, unless you're saddled with J.J. Hardy, but maybe Feliz will help you more at short than third. Julio Lugo and Felipe Lopez played some in left field; LaRue, Chris Duncan and Troy Glaus each played a bit at first base for the Cardinals; and Eric Hinske, who is worth owning because he is producing, got in a few games at third base before Evan Longoria locked up the position for the next decade. Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox, who hasn't hit at all to matter, has played second base, shortstop and outfield. Finally, Detroit's Inge has appeared in three games behind the plate, where his value does rise quite a bit. I could see the guy hitting double-digit home runs. In deep two-catcher leagues, of which I am in an 18-teamer, Inge is certainly worth owning at that spot. I mean, David Ross is owned, right?
Are they there yet?: There weren't a ton of important fantasy options who moved positions this offseason, but for those who have been waiting for 20 games played, Milwaukee's Hall is already there at third base. I'm actually still using him in the outfield, which is weaker this season, in one league. Similarly, teammate Ryan Braun is now officially an outfielder in 20-game leagues. In ESPN's standard rule set, it's 20 games from the prior year, and 10 games in season. I'm sure you knew that already. Tampa Bay's Akinori Iwamura just reached the 20-game threshold at second base as well, though I'm not sure he's worth owning with zero home runs, one steal and a .209 batting average.
Jorge's future?: Watching Jason Giambi run is a bit painful, though probably less so for him actually performing this task we assume is a given for professionals. Jorge Posada can't really throw, and he's already played one game at first base. When will he start playing there a lot more? The Yankees have Posada under contract until he turns 40, and I doubt he'll be behind the plate for much of it, though it does give the Yankees a decided advantage to have a backstop who hits and walks like he does. I just think at some point the team will need his bat in the lineup every day. Those in keeper leagues are already wary of a 36-year-old catcher, but I think Posada would still be a top-20 first baseman, too, so if you can get him on the cheap in that format, don't give up on him yet.
Thanks for the memories: Even if Iwamura can't hit at all for the Rays, B.J. Upton will not be playing any more second base. He's an outfielder now. Ty Wigginton also will be losing his second-base eligibility in 2009. Miguel Cabrera has 14 games at third base, and it doesn't appear Leyland likes the adventure, so that's lost eligibility for the future. Kevin Youkilis needs eight more games at third base to get to 20 for the first time since 2005. He's been in the teens the past two seasons. Mike Lowell should be back in the next week, though, so it will be close. I doubt we'll see Lance Berkman in the outfield this year, though it's always possible. Will Victor Martinez play any first base? Will Alex Gordon, Nick Swisher or Nomar Garciaparra? You might say it doesn't matter that Cleveland's Martinez, the top catcher in fantasy, brings first-base eligibility, but I disagree. In these shallow leagues with only one catcher, why wouldn't I use a Geovany Soto-type behind the plate, and Martinez at corner or utility? I mean, there are more than 10 catchers worth owning.
The designated ones: We won't see David Ortiz and Travis Hafner pick up first baseman mitts until interleague play. Hafner reached the in-season 10-game rule in 2007, but Ortiz did not. Kansas City's Billy Butler is someone being watched closely. He's already at five games at first base, and I think he'll easily get to 10, then 20 without needing interleague. Gary Sheffield played 12 games in the outfield a year ago, and none so far. I don't know if he's going to make 10 games this season. Jim Thome will be a nice pinch-hitter in NL parks.
Earlier this week Tigers manager Jim Leyland announced he was going to switch the positions of corner infielders Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen, which seemed like an unprecedented move to me.