In a highly unusual development for a major league team, particularly a perennial contender, on Opening Day 2014 the Detroit Tigers will send out new players to every infield position from a year ago.
The surprise trade of first baseman Prince Fielder for Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler in November set in motion a major transformation of the Tigers’ infield defense. That realignment will pay immediate dividends for Tiger pitchers come April.
Offensive considerations aside, the Tigers will be better defensively at every infield position in 2014. Let’s break it down.
Miguel Cabrera takes over from the jettisoned Fielder. This will not only benefit Cabrera’s health by eliminating the physical toll third base placed upon his body, but he’ll play stronger defense than Fielder displayed in his two years as a Tiger. (Fans sitting in the front row seats along the right field foul line can also breathe a bit easier, as their expensive ball park food becomes far less likely to be purloined by an intruding Tiger first baseman.)
Fielder was by all accounts a bottom tier defender. Although switching to a bigger glove in 2013 modestly improved his defense, his limitations were obvious. Cabrera returns to a more comfortable position for him at this point in his career, and his soft hands and half foot or so vertical advantage over Fielder will be appreciated by his fellow infielders. Based on his previous experience at first base, Tiger fans can expect slightly below average to average defense at this position, which represents a meaningful upgrade over Fielder.
Likewise, Kinsler will be an improvement over Omar Infante at second base. Though Infante played steadily in 2013, there were times his mediocre range left outs on the field. Kinsler is faster and will cover more acreage. In addition to being rated an above-average defender, he is also one of the best second sackers in the league at turning the double play. With his experience and skills, he and shortstop Jose Iglesias should form one of baseball’s best keystone combinations.
No one should malign Jhonny Peralta‘s defense at shortstop in 2013. As Jim Leyland said many times (well, maybe not as many times as “I like him. I like him a lot.”), an infielder’s most important job is to consistently make the routine play. That may sound easy but it is not. As a shortstop, the most difficult play is frequently the ground ball hit directly at you. That grounder may look routine but occasionally takes a subtle unexpected late hop, requiring a lightning adjustment by the infielder. Peralta was superb on that type of play, and also possessed a highly accurate throwing arm. What he lacked was range and hyper-athleticism.
Which brings us to the 23 year-old Jose Iglesias, whom the Tigers obtained in a July trade for highly regarded outfield prospect Avisail Garcia. Iglesias is a totally different breed of cat from Peralta. Whereas Peralta is the traditional corner convenience store, where you can predictably get milk, bread, and a few sundries but not much else, Iglesias is the Amazon.com of shortstops–he can go anywhere to get anything, and deliver it on time. His sprints, jumps, veers and dives are as instinctive as breathing to him. And when he needs to get rid of the ball, check out how much time the ball is in his glove before it leaves. I suggest you use an atomic clock capable of measuring nanoseconds.
The man is simply the most exciting defender in baseball. In the near future ESPN may have to devote a nightly five-minute segment solely to his highlights. Suffice it to say, the Tigers are in “good hands” with Iglesias at shortstop for 2014 and beyond.
Despite his obvious zeal for playing third base, Miguel Cabrera is not well- suited to do so at this stage of his career. However, those who contended in 2012 that he would be a total disaster, and their number was legion, were wrong. Though clearly a lower tier third baseman, he manned the position acceptably throughout 2012 and most of 2013, until struck with a core injury in late August. From that point forward he was rendered virtually immobile and became an undeniable liability in the field.
Following the trade of Fielder he was consulted by Tiger management and to his credit volunteered to move across the diamond to first, which new manager Brad Ausmus rightly acknowledged as a “team first” gesture by the future Hall of Famer.
Enter 21 year-old Nick Castellanos. Since he was a high school shortstop and spent most of the past two years as a minor league left fielder, there is only a scant sample of his work as a professional third baseman. What we do know is that he is a natural infielder with a strong work ethic. He is reportedly taking hundreds of grounders daily in Florida this off season to prepare for his new third base assignment this spring. Tiger GM Dave Dombrowski suggests Castellanos will establish himself as an average third baseman, and does not project as a Gold Glove-type talent.
No matter. The 6’4″, 205 pound Castellanos has fresh legs, an infielder’s instinct, and age on his side. As is the case with Cabrera replacing Fielder at first, moving the needle from “below average” towards “average” at this corner infield position is a welcome upgrade.
Two other moves the Tigers made in the offseason may also improve the quality of the infield play. Matt Martin, an experienced minor league infield instructor, was named the Tigers’ “defense coordinator” in November. According to the Tigers, Martin will assist with “all on-field arrangements as well as with the coordination of all advanced scouting information.”
This is no doubt a Brad Ausmus-inspired addition to the staff designed to incorporate a contemporary, more sophisticated approach to team defense.
The second addition to the staff is eleven time Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel, who will serve as the team’s infield, first base, and base running coach. If he can teach infield half as well as he played it, the team will be very well-served indeed. Vizquel has already adopted Castellanos as his first project, and that relationship alone may justify his salary.
With a flurry of early major trades and signings in November, this offseason has been a mixed bag for the Tigers. The jury still remains out on the wisdom of some of these transactions.
But one thing is crystal clear. When Opening Day arrives in the spring and these Detroit Tiger infielders trot out to their positions around the horn, they will prove to be significantly less charitable than their predecessors.
And in baseball, that’s always a good thing.