Inside Pitch: Position switches are risky
Moving players around diamond in-season has its pitfalls
Having a player move to an unfamiliar position during the season is a risky move that most managers attempt only with reluctance and only after considerable thought.
Sometimes, however, it can pay off handsomely.
Thirty-three years ago, Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson moved left fielder Pete Rose to third base because he wanted more offense from the position. Anderson also wanted to make room in left for a young outfielder named George Foster. Rose, who came to the Major Leagues as a second baseman before moving to the outfield, moved to the hot corner without a hitch. The Reds went on to win 108 regular season games and the World Series.
Anderson's gamble came to mind this week when Detroit manager Jim Leyland announced he was moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and Carlos Guillen to third.
Just like the Reds of '75, the Tigers are an immensely talented team off to a poor start, and Leyland is hoping the switch will help Detroit get going.
"We think at this particular time it gives us a better team," Leyland said. "So that's what we're doing."
Leyland's flip-flopping Cabrera and Guillen to opposite corners of the infield obviously doesn't create an opening for another bat, but it immediately improves the infield defense.
Cabrera has been charged with five errors, an alarming rate that can't continue if the Tigers are going to get back in the race. At the very least it should help a Tigers pitching staff that entered play Thursday with a 5.32 ERA, the worst in baseball with the exception of Texas (5.40) and Pittsburgh (5.66).
"It's not just that Cabrera's been awful defensively, Guillen to me hadn't looked comfortable at first, either," said an AL scout. "I think [the switch] makes them better, and that should [mean fewer runs allowed]."
Playing first base should be less taxing on Cabrera physically than his former position, and who knows, maybe he'll be a quick study at first base like Albert Pujols was when the St. Louis slugger moved there after playing third base and left field.
The risk for the Tigers is that Cabrera doesn't make a smooth transition. Then where would the Tigers be after committing $152.3 million over eight years for Cabrera? They don't need any more designated hitters, not with guys like Gary Sheffield (signed through 2009), Magglio Ordonez (signed through 2009) and Guillen (signed through 2011) sharing those duties.
The Tigers have a lot invested in the 25-year-old Cabrera, and in this team. They need him to make this move seamlessly as much as they need to get going.
Leyland's gamble may not pay off as well as Anderson's, but you can't really blame him for taking the chance.
Not only is there nothing wrong with David Ortiz, according to one AL scout, the Boston slugger had his best year ever in 2007 and should have a similar season in 2008.
That might not jibe with Ortiz's .188 batting average (entering Thursday's game), though Ortiz, after a 3-for-43 (.070) start, is hitting at a .310 (13-for-42) clip since then.
"Everybody looks at that [slow start], his age (32) and that he hit fewer homers last year and say he's on the way down," the scout said. "But look at his other numbers, he was a more complete hitter last season than he's ever been."
Ortiz went from 54 homers in 2006 to 35 last year, but he also set career highs in batting average (.332), doubles (52), on-base percentage (.445), OPS (1.066) and hits (182) last season. His strikeouts last season were his fewest since 2003, and Ortiz scored one more run last season than he did in 2006. His walks and extra-base hits totals remained comparable to what Ortiz has averaged since he came to Boston.
"Who cares if he doesn't hit as many home runs if he gives you that kind of production?" the scout said. "He's taking what [opposing pitchers] are giving him, that's what smart hitters do."
An NL scout who watched Brandon Webb's recent starts said he's never seen the Arizona right-hander pitch better.
"He's not throwing 90-percent sinkers like he used to," the scout said. "He's got three pitches now and it's made him even tougher to face."
The scout said Webb is using a changeup and curveball more frequently in combination with his trademark sinker.
Webb's results underscore how well incorporating the changeup into his repertoire is working. He is 5-0 with a 2.31 ERA and has held opponents to a .188 batting average and .243 on-base percentage.
"He's been making a lot of very good hitters look very lost," the scout said.
Where to next for Frank Thomas? Oakland, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Texas are possible fits.
"I can't see an NL club signing him, not if he wants to play every day," a veteran scout said. "He's a DH now, period. I don't think he's done, remember he started slow last year, but I don't see teams getting in a bidding war for him either."
Thomas was batting .167 with three home runs and 11 RBIs when he parted company with the Blue Jays on Saturday. Last year he hit .277 with a team-high 26 homers and 95 RBIs.
Under the terms of the two-year deal Thomas signed before the 2007 season, he would have been guaranteed a $10 million salary for 2009 by reaching 1,000 plate appearances between the 2007-08 campaigns. Thomas needed just 304 more trips to the plate this season for that option to vest.
The Blue Jays are on the hook for the balance of Thomas' 2008 salary of $8 million, but they won't have to pay the $1 million in performance bonuses Thomas might have earned had he remained with Toronto.
Washington right-hander Tim Redding has always had an outstanding arm, but that didn't consistently translate into success during stops with the Astros, Yankees and Padres. But Redding pitched well in the second half of last season for the Nationals, posting a 3.64 ERA and eight quality starts in 15 attempts.
The 30-year-old has continued to build on that success this year, winning three of his first four decisions. Redding was matched against Johan Santana of the Mets on Wednesday night and left the game in the sixth with the score tied, though one of the baserunners he allowed subsequently scored to raise his season ERA to 3.67.
Redding is simply relying on his ability and not trying to be too fine. He doesn't seem to let setbacks throw him off his game, which wasn't always the case. At times in the past a bad play behind him or a bad inning led to a concentration lapse. Not any more. Redding, a former 20th-round choice in the 1997 First-Year Player Draft, appears to have finally harnessed his skills and the Nationals are reaping the benefits.
Some industry observers believe Milwaukee's Eric Gagne's recent problems stem from hitters sitting on his fastball, which they have been able to do more often because the right-hander has not been consistently throwing his changeup for strikes.
Entering play on Thursday, Gagne was 1-1 with an 8.31 ERA in 10 games. He had converted six of 10 save opportunities, with blown saves in his last two appearances. Two of the three walks he's allowed have come in his last two outings.
After two blown saves and a 12.27 ERA, Astros closer Jose Valverde adjusted his mechanics slightly and his first outing after he did resulted in his 100th career save in Houston's 6-4 win on Sunday against Colorado.
"It was like he was his old self again -- kind of aggressive and going after them," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "I've got confidence in him. I think he's going to be the guy that we thought we were getting back in the wintertime. This guy's got a good arm, he's just had a little problem with his split. We made one little mechanical change with the way he was setting up to deliver the ball."
Valverde wouldn't get into specifics as to what he fixed, but said he feels like he did last year, when he led the Major Leagues with 47 saves.
"My stuff's working -- my fastball, my cutter, my splitter," he said. "This is the best I've felt this year. The emotion I have right now for today and for the game is the emotion I had last year."
That Walt Jocketty was named president of baseball operations and manager of the Reds came as no surprise to most baseball observers, many of whom had been expecting such a move after Jocketty was hired as special advisor to president/CEO Bob Castellini on Jan. 11. But what did surprise a lot of industry types was that it happened now.
Krivsky was GM of the Reds for 2006, 2007 and the first three weeks of this season. His predecessor, Dan O'Brien, was GM during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
The surprising aspect was the timing.
"I know [Jocketty] has been there [since January], but you're only three weeks into the season, you've got the Draft coming up and the trade deadline [on July 31] -- why change now?" one official said. "And if you're going to do this now, you might as well have done it in January."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.