Hanley, Miggy together again in moves to third

Hanley, Miggy together again in moves to third

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Miguel Cabrera wasn't making any predictions about third base the day he reported to Tigers camp. The one prediction he did make wasn't for himself.

"Hanley [Ramirez] is going to be MVP this year," Cabrera said. "He's got a lot of things to do, but I think he's going to have an incredible year."

Cabrera has seen that potential in Ramirez for a while. This time, though, he's seeing it from a different angle, third baseman to third baseman.

They once comprised the left side of the Florida Marlins' infield, and they worked out under the same personal trainer. Now both Cabrera and Ramirez are coming under the hot spotlight of the hot corner from different positions, as is Angels slugger Mark Trumbo to a lesser degree.

Both Cabrera and Ramirez gave way to make room for major free-agent signings, and both are taking on change before age 30. While both have tempered expectations, their success or failure at the position will have serious ramifications on expectations for 2012 and beyond.

They join a position where the value of offense has risen like the price of gas. In 2004, 14 players who saw regular time at third base hit for at least an .800 OPS. No less than nine players did it each season from 2005-09.

That number dropped to seven in each of the past two seasons. One last year was Kevin Youkilis, whom the Red Sox shifted from first base to make room for Adrian Gonzalez. Another was Michael Young, who transitioned from shortstop for the Rangers in 2009. The top two, Adrian Beltre and Aramis Ramirez, earned lucrative free-agent deals over the past two offseasons.

That context plays a role in the decisions. It certainly played a part in the Tigers' willingness to shift Cabrera, who moved to first base soon after Detroit acquired him prior to the 2008 season.

Had Victor Martinez not blown out his knee in January, Cabrera would still be at first. It took that loss and the chance to add Prince Fielder for the Tigers to consider it.

Cabrera would've led all Major League third basemen in OPS by more than 100 points. That premium is what drives the Tigers.

"I'm not making any predictions," manager Jim Leyland said recently, "but I am making a point -- in 1997, we won the World Series [in Florida] with Bobby Bonilla playing third base, and everybody said that would never happen."

Bonilla, 34 at the time and two years removed from third, made 22 errors with a fielding percentage and range factor below league average. He also batted .297 with 17 homers and 96 RBIs.

Another example is Youkilis, who went from an above-average first baseman to a slightly below-average third baseman. His offense dropped, but mainly out of nagging injuries he never shook.

"I think the biggest thing is a lot more footwork," Youkilis said of the transition. "You don't have the luxury of just knocking balls down. You've got to field it. It's as simple as that. Field it and throw it. Because if you don't field it, you've got no chance at third."

Ramirez couldn't be coming from a more different direction. For his first six seasons, he was the cornerstone of a Marlins infield that never ranked well. To many, third base seemed more like his destiny. Jose Reyes' arrival hastened the timetable.

Ramirez's .712 OPS would've ranked 10th at third base. The Marlins are counting on a rebound.

Defensively, most credit Ramirez with the easier shift, made evident over the years by Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Travis Fryman and Young. Scouts and peers alike expect Ramirez to do the same.

"The big thing for Hanley is just scooping up the routine play," Young said. "You have to get a quick setup because the ball gets to you quickly. You do that, you'll be fine, but the angles are completely different."

The only catch, according to one player evaluator, is that a shortstop with mixed history rarely becomes better at third. Jhonny Peralta, who manned third for two years in Cleveland alongside Asdrubal Cabrera, arguably became worse. So did Carlos Guillen.

"The ball gets in quick," said Peralta, who added that positioning is vital. "You don't have a lot of time."

Peralta is the rare case who argued a first baseman might have an easier transition. Others disagreed.

"Hanley is a great athlete," Young continued. "He won't have any problems with that. Just don't overwhelm yourself. Scoop up the routine play and go from there."

Ramirez expects to do that.

"Right now, I feel like it's more easy for me," Ramirez said last month. "You don't have to be moving a lot."

Yet it's that stationary nature that some cite to give Cabrera a chance. One American League scout who watched him come up cited his good hands.

"If he commits to it, he can be OK on the routine play," one National League scout said. "[Needs] lots of reps, though."

Cabrera's commitment, actually, might be his biggest strength, and it could be the one factor that pushes him through this move. He genuinely believes he can play third, and he looks genuinely happy.

When Cabrera couldn't field his first play at third Sunday, he was upbeat that he got behind the ball. He'll work on the rest.

"Like I said, I like to play third," Cabrera said. "They gave me a chance to play third again, so I don't want to miss the opportunity."

"The Fielding Bible," which projects Defensive Runs, predicted Cabrera to be the worst third baseman in the league, costing his team 15 runs. But the Tigers expect his offense to more than make up for that.

The Marlins' defense, while much improved, is still projected as worst in the league. But Reyes' arrival upgrades the offense in turn.

In the end, the Tigers' ability to use their open DH slot to play matchups when needed could be the difference. The Marlins have no alternative, but they hope they don't need it.

Cabrera's and Ramirez's biggest supporters might be each other.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.