The sounds of baseball are part of its magic. We all love to hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, or the emphatic strike-three call from the home-plate umpire.
But this spring, there’s going to be a renewed focus on defensive drills. That’s because there are at least 10 big-named players trying to learn new defensive positions before Opening Day.
It’s rare when you see this many guys moving around the field at the same time, but it certainly gives us fans something to keep an eye on once Spring Training exhibition games kick off next week.
To help get you geared up, I’ll try to take you through some of the most notable positions changes teams are in the process of making. And of course, if you can think of any that I’ve omitted, let me hear about it in the comments section below.
Carpenter spent last Spring Training learning how to play second base. Now that the Cardinals have dealt away David Freese, Carpenter will be moving back to his natural position at third base. No longer facing the heightened scrutiny that comes with learning a new position, Carpenter will be able to just let his hair down and play this season. That’s a scary proposition considering the numbers he posted in 2013, when he batted .318, led the National League in hits (199) and runs (126) and finished fourth in MVP voting.
Carlos Beltran is now a New York Yankee, and slugger Matt Adams absolutely has to get every-day at-bats. Since you can’t play two players at first base, manager Mike Matheny had little choice but to ask Craig to trade in his first baseman’s mitt for an outfielder’s glove. While first base is Craig’s natural position, he has started 65 games in the outfield, so the Cardinals hope the learning curve will be slight. And whatever mistakes he does make are likely to be forgiven if he can replicate his All-Star offensive numbers from a year ago (a .315 batting average and 97 RBIs in just 508 at-bats).
This move has been long expected, and a long time coming for the Twins’ $184 million man. Mauer is Minnesota’s lone star, its franchise player, so durability is the name of the game in managing him going forward. The organization had already begun to wean Mauer off of his love for catching – Mauer started just 73 and 72 games behind the plate in the last two seasons – and now it appears the move is permanent. Justin Morneau was moved at last year’s trade deadline, so the Twins have a need at first base. Plus prospect Josmil Pinto appears to be on the cusp of Major-League ready, and will demand as many behind-the-plate reps as he can possibly get this spring.
Khris Davis has earned a spot in the Brewers’ every-day lineup. Despite having started all 817 of his outfield appearances in left field, Braun has the stronger arm between the two, so he has been asked to move to right. Some players in Bruan’s situation might have resisted such a change, especially given the experience and track record he brings to the table. But Braun has been open to the move since it was suggested to him back around November. Expect runners to test that arm strength as Braun works to figure right field out this year.
Last year, Choo manned center field in Cincinnati out of a necessity – no one else could do it. Choo had good range, but his discomfort at playing the center-field angles was evident and some balls hit his way were turned out to be quite the adventure. This year, Choo moves back to a more natural corner-outfield position in left field, filling the void left by the departing Nelson Cruz, who remains an unsigned free agent. Leonys Martin will occupy center. Choo had played a serviceable right field in years past with the Cleveland Indians, so unless something dramatic happens between now and Opening Day, he stands to complete the outfield trifecta.
CarGo was a Gold Glove left fielder in 2011, but his defensive metrics have really been all over the place during his career: +8 in 2011, -13 in 2012 and +10 in 2013. Dexter Fowler is now a Houston Astro, and though the Rockies have signed Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes this offseason, it doesn’t appear that they believe either can be an every-day starter. So for now, center field is Gonzalez’s to lose. When he first broke into the big leagues, Cargo was shuffled around all three outfield positions, so he has some feel for what the job entails. Perhaps playing full-time in center will provide a clearer, more stable picture as to what his true defensive metrics are like.
Cabrera was the Tigers’ first baseman before the club signed Prince Fielder. Cabrera reclaims that first base position now that the club has traded Fielder to the Tigers. This move was a no brainer. Cabrera was fine at third – that was his natural position when he first broke on to the scene with the Marlins – and he will be fine at first, though you shouldn’t expect any Gold Glove Awards any time soon. Youngster Nick Castellanos will take over at third base in Detroit, and a lot of people are excited to see what kind of player he will develop into.
Santana is a fantastic offensive player. But defensively, he has always left a lot to be desired when working behind the plate. Yan Gomes makes more sense behind the dish for the Indians. He proved last season that he can be a formidable offensive threat, and he’s much better with the mitt and managing games than Santana. Lonnie Chisenhall was once expected to be the third baseman of the future. He will have to compete with Santana for at-bats at that position this spring, and ultimately may be relegated to a pinch hitting, reserve type of role for 2014. Interestingly, Santana was originally a third baseman in the low minor leagues before switching to catcher, so he certainly could hit the ground running with this switch.
This offseason, the Dodgers won the bidding war to sign Cuban shortstop Alex Guerrero. With Hanley Ramirez firmly entrenched at shortstop, they did so with the specific intent of converting him to a second baseman. Now it’s unclear whether Guerrero will be a full-time starter, or will platoon with Dee Gordon and/or Chone Figgins. Manager Don Mattingly has spoken publicly about his openness to a platoon situation, so a lot is riding on Guerrero’s performance in Spring Training. But platooning may not be the worst thing in the world for Guerrero or for the Dodgers. It would give him and the club favorable matchups, and would lessen some of the pressure of being a highly touted, highly sought after foreign signee. But that’s all conjecture, and Guerrero certainly has the chance to win the position outright. A lot will depend on his defense; reports from the Dominican Winter League were that he did not look good, and seemed to have stiff hands in the few games that he played.
When I think of Rafael Furcal, I think only of the cat-like quickness, superb reflexes and laser arm he’s shown off for a decade-plus ranging around the shortstop position. But Furcal missed all of 2013 with injuries, and he certainly isn’t getting any younger. He’s at a point in his career where the sun is starting to set. His offensive numbers have slowly been waning since around 2011, and if his defense fails him there won’t be much left for him to offer a big league club. Moving to second will add a little longevity. The position doesn’t require as much athleticism, and certainly doesn’t require the kind of arm strength that Furcal was once so famous for. He will almost certainly hold down the starter job in Miami. And if he has a resurgence at the plate, there may be a future landing spot with a contender for one more chase for a championship.