Cleveland Guardians News

Could Asdrubal Cabrera Move to Center Field?


With Grady Sizemore now almost certainly out of the picture, center field looks like a bit of a question mark for the Cleveland Indians.

Barring a trade or a free agent signing Michael Brantley looks poised to take over everyday duties in center for 2012, but there are questions about whether his defense is good enough to make the permanent shift from left. There’s no doubt he has the raw speed to handle center, but his range and arm leave something to be desired—defensive metrics can be wonky, but UZR (-22.8 career UZR/150 in center, -13.6 total), DRS (-15, -10), TZR (-5, 0), and FRAA (-4, -8.1) all see him as below average.

Meanwhile, the Indians have another defensive problem to worry about: Asdrubal Cabrera. Despite his awe-inspiring web gems and Gold Glove candidacy, he’s actually a subpar defensive shortstop. With three of the most extreme groundball pitchers in baseball pencilled in for the 2012 rotation (Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona, and the newly acquired Derek Lowe) infield defense will be of tremendous importance to the Tribe, so his fielding struggles are more worrisome than they would be to most other teams.

There’s one idea that could potentially solve both of these problems: moving Cabrera to center field.

It sounds crazy (I admit, it could be) but at the very least I think it merits some consideration.

It’s never easy for a player to change positions, but many subpar middle infielders have made very successful transitions to the outfield. Alfonso Soriano springs to mind: he was a sieve at second base, then became a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder before age caught up with him. B.J. Upton and Martin Prado are other recent examples who have worked out pretty well. Chuck Knoblauch’s defense improved significantly when the Yankees moved him to the big green, and rumor has it Derek Jeter could end up there too.

The fact of the matter is, it’s easier to play outfield than it is to play shortstop. Outfielders get more time to react when the ball is hit than infielders do, and they don’t make as many plays as their peers around the horn—especially when they’re playing behind a wormburning pitching staff like Cleveland’s. Even if we take UZR at its word that Cabrera was the worst-fielding shortstop in baseball this year, based on FanGraphs’ positional adjustments he’d have been far from the bottom had he played center field (and solidly above-average if he’d played left).

Cabrera wouldn’t be a Gold Glover in center, but there’s ample reason to think he could hold his own in center. Every Tribe fan knows he has solid wheels—he swiped 17 bases this year—and while he doesn’t have a cannon, he has a decent arm. His offensive numbers would become less impressive if he were no longer a middle infielder, but that doesn’t mean that would decrease his value. Based on the positional adjustments and his 2011 UZR, Cabrera could be 7 runs below average in center and the move would be a wash; we don’t have any basis for assessing how he’d do in the outfield, but I think that’s a very conservative projection that he wouldn’t have much trouble beating.

In addition, Cabrera taking over center means Brantley can stay in left. The people have spoken in Tom Tango’s Fans’ Scouting Report, and they say Cabrera’s arm is way better than Brantley’s. Also, for what it’s worth, Brantley actually ranks positively in most defensive metrics as a left fielder, though that’s in just an 81-game sample.

That leaves a hole at shortstop, but it’s one that’s easily filled. Jason Donald was impressive in his brief stint with the team this year, and in his 80-plate appearance debut Cord Phelps showed signs of life buried beneath his unlucky .189 BABIP. Odds are, at least one of the two could be a respectable everyday player, of at least similar caliber to whomever would otherwise fill the vacant outfield spot. Worst-case scenario, Cabrera would still be on the roster and could conceivably move back.

There’s obviously no guarantee that this would work, and it would probably be a hard sell for fans to see a player who is perceived to be a great shortstop moved to center field. But if it went well, it would kill two birds—filling the hole in the outfield and shoring up the infield defense—with one stone while opening the door for two (relatively) young players to learn to handle MLB pitching. It might just be crazy enough to work.

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