DETROIT -- As injury replacements go, Prince Fielder is a big one, probably the biggest since the Yankees replaced Aaron Boone with Alex Rodriguez in 2004. As win-now moves go, it's big enough to remind Tigers of the Miguel Cabrera trade four winters ago.The Tigers plugged the hole left by Victor Martinez's injury with one of the best sluggers in baseball and gave themselves a stronger chance to not just win the American League Central, but to make a run at the World Series. They made the upcoming summer potentially one to remember at Comerica Park, not to mention the fall, and put themselves back in baseball's national spotlight. Short term, they gave themselves the piece they needed to go for it all. Long term, they have some shifting to do along the way to get there. That shift, to some degree, is going to include Miguel Cabrera returning to the hot corner. Tinkering with the batting order should be easy, with Fielder moving into Martinez's old spot batting behind Cabrera. Manager Jim Leyland proved more open last year to debating the pros and cons of batting Cabrera third, so it's possible Fielder could protect Cabrera and bat cleanup.
In the field, it's more delicate. Cabrera calls third base his "natural position," the spot he manned for his final two-plus seasons with the Marlins. He played third in his first month as a Tiger in 2008 before Detroit moved him to first base, and he grew excited at the prospect of moving back there on a short-term basis had the Tigers advanced to the World Series last year.
New Prince of Detroit
With Fielder now on board, Cabrera says he's moving back.The Tigers have said for four years that they believe Cabrera can be a very good first baseman, and he's vastly better now than he was in 2008. But they also would've had a hard time selling Prince Fielder on the idea of becoming a full-time designated hitter after seven seasons as a strong first baseman. Neither Cabrera nor Fielder stood out defensively last season, according to the metric UZR/150. Among first basemen who played 1,000 innings at the position, Fielder ranked third from the bottom and Cabrera fifth from the bottom. Over the past two seasons, Cabrera leads Major League first basemen with 26 errors, while Fielder is third with 19.
A source close to Cabrera told MLB.com that Tigers officials approached Cabrera when he was in town last week to get his thoughts on Fielder as an option, and Cabrera told them he was on board with it. The idea, according to the source, was to give Cabrera time at third base, as well as DH, and some time at first.Cabrera, meanwhile, gave the impression to Venezuelan media, including reporter Marfa Mata and the newspaper Lieder in Deportes, that he would be the third baseman. In terms of personnel, the Tigers can fit Cabrera at third. They were prepared to go into the season platooning Brandon Inge and Don Kelly at third, but both are capable of playing other positions. Kelly, in particular, made a role for himself as a super-utility player. Inge could be a trickier situation, having accepted a demotion to the Minors last summer so that he could stay in the organization after some prodding from owner Mike Ilitch. Inge's $5.5 million salary is guaranteed for this year, but the Tigers showed their willingness to eat it when they designated him for assignment and traded for Wilson Betemit last July. Depending on how playing time shakes out, it isn't difficult to envision the Tigers making a similar decision. This time, though, it's a riskier choice. Betemit has been a third baseman for most of his career; Cabrera has been away from the spot for four years. They'll have weeks to gauge Cabrera as a third baseman in Spring Training, but Inge and Kelly provide options. Cabrera has been working out this offseason like somebody who could play multiple positions, not just first base. Still, getting back to the slimmer body frame he took to third base in years past is probably out of the question. The real question is what weight Cabrera can find where he feels fine as a hitter and a fielder. He likes some of the extra bulk at the plate, but it carries far better as a first baseman than a third sacker. Take away the baby face, and the images of Cabrera making plays at third as a Marlin sometimes look like a different person. Cabrera finished 20th out of 22 qualifying Major League third basemen in 2007 with a .941 fielding percentage; his 2.51 Range Factor ranked 14th. He was 13th out of 20 in fielding percentage in 2006, and 16th in range. The Tigers have the DH spot open this year, allowing them to mix and match if something doesn't work out. They don't have the luxury in 2013, when Martinez is expected back to full health. At that point, Cabrera will need an on-field home, since trading Martinez, who is coming off knee surgery with two years left on his contract, appears difficult at best. If he can make the transition to third base, he can hold the spot until top hitting prospect Nick Castellanos is ready for the big leagues. If not, it isn't impossible to think of him returning to left field, another of his old roles in Florida and another spot where the Tigers have lived with some defensive challenges over the years since moving in the fences at Comerica Park. Those have ranged from Dmitri Young to Delmon Young, Marcus Thames to Rondell White to Ryan Raburn. However they do it, they'll have to find a fit. Martinez is under contract through 2014, Cabrera through 2015. And with reportedly no opt-out clause in his deal, Fielder is set to be with the Tigers through 2020.