Jim Leyland was quoted yesterday talking about how this deal and the players they acquired were like a presents under the tree. Well, now that we can open up the presents, it’s time to play with them. The common refrain is that the Tigers should play Miguel Cabrera at third base and move Brandon Inge. It’s pretty clear that Cabrera is better than Inge and I’m not going to try and dissuade you from thinking that way. But as both Rob Neyer and Lee Panas have pointed out, the chasm in defensive ability between the two makes the upgrade not as dramatic as it appears at first blush. Are the Tigers better served putting Cabrera in left field?
Defensively I’ll turn to the methodology I deployed a couple weeks ago when I was giddy about the Tigers infield defense. Using PMR, we know that Brandon Inge is about 20 plays better than predicted over 4000 balls in play. Cabrera meanwhile is awful. He makes about 31 plays fewer than expected. A swing of 51 plays between the two players is simply huge. That works out to about 40 runs. That number differs in magnitude from Neyer’s (he had it at 40 plays or 32 runs) and Lee’s (46 plays and 37 runs), but you get the idea.
But what happens if Cabrera plays the outfield? I don’t expect him to be a defensive whiz out there either. But it is farther down the defensive spectrum, so while he may be not good, it may not be as glaringly not good. Quite frankly a lower percentage of balls hit to left field are expected to be converted to outs than at third base, so simply in decreased opportunities there may be an improvement in putting Cabrera out there.
For the sake of argument, let’s average the performance of the 5 worst left fielders and say he’ll perform similarly. That would mean that over 4000 balls in play (or about 145 games) he’d miss 25 plays. Now those plays are more costly in left field than third base because they are more likely to go for extra bases so the run value is 21 runs.
But of course there is an offensive component there as well. To estimate left field production with Marcus Thames and Jacque Jones I gave Jones about two-thirds of the playing time with the rest going to Thames. And for the offensive projections I used the Bill James Runs Created projections available at Fangraphs.
Here’s how the two options work out over 145 games:
The total contribution from the 2 positions is 189.2 runs.
The total run contribution is 183.5
It looks to be a wash. Caveats abound here because we’re working on a number of assumptions. James projections see Inge continuing to regress. Does he follow that path or does he bounce back even a little and get a slugging percentage over .400? Along the same lines does Jacque Jones bounce back and figure out how to hit for any modicum of power? Either thing happening swings the balance.
The other item to keep in mind is that the Tigers will be trotting out a rotation with 3 southpaws meaning there will be a greater number of balls going to the left side of the field. While that effects the infield as well as the outfield, there are more plays in the infield. The more balls hit to 3rd, the greater the disparity between Cabrera and Inge defensively.
As for what players you’d rather have around, there are pluses and minuses to both. Inge does provide considerable versatility in his ability to play 3rd base and outifeld and even catcher. If you remember the Tigers need someone to back up Pudge in case Vance Wilson isn’t ready. I know Inge doesn’t want to go behind the plate, but his situation has changed.
Inge is also owed the most money with 3 years left on his contract. That makes him the most desirable for the Tigers to move and the least desirable for other teams to take. Jones only has a year left, but doesn’t offer the versatility of Inge but does provide a left handed bat. Marcus Thames is entering his first year of arbitration, meaning he’ll be year to year and relatively cheap for the next 3 years, but provides the least flexibility and is a highly redundant right handed bat.
While this will cause great consternation among many, I’d advocate for keeping Inge and having him play 3rd base, putting Cabrera in left field, moving Thames and making Jacque Jones the 4th outfielder. If the Tigers can get a decent return for Inge, like prospects or a solid bullpen arm it does probably make sense to move him. But I can’t see moving him just to clear a spot or payroll. The team is far from boxed in at that point, and if Inge absolutely flounders offensively they can shift things around.
And yet another option is to platoon defensively. On the nights when a lefty is on the mound, especially Kenny Rogers, it is probably worthwhile to have the superior defender at the hot corner.
These aren’t easy choices, but they are definitely fun ones.