A year ago, St. Louis Cardinals free-agent addition Lance Berkman was one of the bigger names preparing for an offseason position change, and most observers, from both a real and fantasy baseball sense, had reason to be skeptical. An aging and seemingly brittle Berkman was declining offensively and hadn't played the outfield regularly in four years. As a result, the signing was largely panned.
Well, Berkman transitioned well from first base to right field; nobody seemed to care about defense as he posted a .959 OPS (sixth in baseball) and, perhaps more surprisingly, played in 145 games.
Truth be told, Berkman was not a particularly good right fielder. Cardinals pitchers are better off with Berkman at first base in 2012. But those who took the chance on him late in mixed-league fantasy drafts -- my hands are raised high -- were certainly pleased by the overall result, as were Cardinals fans. My main argument on Berkman was that he was only two years removed from offensive production, and an impromptu position change wasn't enough of a deterrent to him returning to that level (or surpassing it). Berkman had played outfield previously. Have a little faith! Berkman wasn't the only fellow to change positions leading into the 2011 season, but certainly things worked out marvelously.
Heading into 2012, a pair of fantasy first-rounders for me are scheduled to assume new places on the diamond, and unlike Berkman, you won't be able to acquire them with a 20th-round draft pick. Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, arguably fantasy's first choice off the draft board, and Miami Marlins star Hanley Ramirez, a candidate for the top spot the past few seasons and my No. 10 option (though likely a second-round choice in most leagues), are each preparing to move to third base. One might think, as with Berkman a year ago, that these situations are destined to fail, adversely affecting offensive production and their fantasy value. I disagree.
Cabrera is a career .955 fielder in 387 games at third base, lacking speed, mobility and, let's be honest, the instincts to handle the hot corner. Ramirez isn't a very good shortstop, and there are concerns whether he even wants to move to third base. He's never played anywhere but shortstop in the big leagues. But when the Tigers and Marlins signed prized free-agents Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes, respectively, they didn't do so for defensive purposes. Those teams probably did consider, ever so briefly, the ramifications of moving Cabrera and Ramirez to third base, and the positive outweighed the negative.
Fantasy owners should adopt a similar way of thinking. Added eligibility is always a good thing in the fantasy world, no matter the sport. One might think there's no way a fantasy team would need Ramirez, who brings with him the more coveted shortstop eligibility in addition to third base once he plays his 10th game there in April, to handle third base or corner infield duties, but injuries happen, and this adds versatility. Same with Cabrera, a first baseman who last played third base regularly in 2007. The third-base position is not weak for fantasy this season, certainly not compared to previous seasons, and first base has taken a large step backward in terms of depth. It's certainly possible a fantasy team with an injury opening in July would consider a free-agent third baseman and move Cabrera back to first base.
Fantasy owners shouldn't worry about motivation, emotions or fielding percentages with Cabrera and Ramirez, and don't overrate how much this destroys the value of ground-ball pitchers such as Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, and, to a lesser degree, Ricky Nolasco and Mark Buehrle in Miami. The Tigers and Marlins added critical offensive pieces to potential defensive detriment, but they're better off overall. So are fantasy owners.
In terms of other players switching positions and adding fantasy eligibility, the name that jumps out to me is new Seattle Mariners designated hitter Jesus Montero. Yep, he is not catcher-eligible in ESPN leagues yet. Last season, Montero appeared in 18 games for the New York Yankees, 14 as DH. He caught in just three games. He's a DH until he plays 10 games behind the plate this season. The Mariners claim Montero will be given the opportunity to don the "tools of ignorance" this spring, but let's not assume he adds catcher eligibility in April. He's going to hit, but if you draft him in a standard format, you might need to use your "replacement" catcher for more than two weeks.
It's possible the Angels will try to alleviate their first-base/outfield logjam by moving Mark Trumbo to third base. In theory, this isn't much different than what the Tigers are doing, except Trumbo isn't a special player. He can hit home runs, but a sub-.300 OBP is a huge red flag. Let someone else deal with Trumbo's disappointing sophomore season, and if he/she can do so with added third-base eligibility, so be it. The Angels should use Alberto Callaspo, an on-base guy who is defends well enough, at third base.
After Montero and Trumbo, there isn't much to watch in terms of pending added eligibility for standard leagues. I wrote about Mat Gamel of the Milwaukee Brewers last week. He'll likely add first-base eligibility in April. Former Boston Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro should add second-base eligibility for the Colorado Rockies a few weeks into the season, and while it seems unlikely a fantasy team would need him for more than standard middle infield duties, the move does increase his fantasy value slightly. So does Coors Field and the potential to hit second in the order. Meanwhile, Yonder Alonso, the key to the Mat Latos trade between the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres, is outfield-eligible only but should play first base this season. It helps, but chances are you'll be using the young, lefty-hitting slugger in the outfield.