Now that we’ve all had a chance to settle down and allow the news of the Prince Fielder signing to digest, it’s time to figure out how it changes the complexion of the AL Central race. Specifically, we’ll be taking a look at how the Cleveland Indians stack up against the Detroit Tigers on a position-by-position basis.
So that all of you can get more bang for your buck (and so I don’t ramble on for 25,000 words) I’m going to handle this analysis in segments and compare various aspects of both teams together and reach a final verdict on each. The winner at the end will unofficially be declared the favorite by me heading into 2012 (which is ultimately worthless and, as such, means the Royals will come out of nowhere to win the division). Hopefully when all of this is said and done we’ll all have a better idea of where the Indians stand in comparison to the Tigers, the team every national pundit is bound to pick to win the division.
What better place to start than with the two positions that are sure to make or break this race for both teams: the corner infield spots.
If there are two positions that could define the 2012 season for both the Indians and Tigers, it’ll be first base and third base.
For the Tigers, the corner infield positions should be an overwhelming strength—not just in comparison to the Indians, but in comparison to any other team in baseball. Thanks to the much-heralded signing of Prince Fielder and the already-present Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers can boast one of the most potent 1-2 corner infield punches we have ever seen. Both are premier middle of the order hitters and should complement each other extremely well, and both the the eye test and the statistics completely agree on that.
Fielder and Cabrera will be a nightmare with runners on base. Depending on where they bat in the order, pitchers will have the choice to pitch around one to get to the other. Never has “pick you poison” felt so deadly. Opponents will have to either try their luck against Cabrera’s patience and bat control or Fielder’s raw power. These guys can mash. There’s no denying that.
Really, this could create a middle of a lineup for the ages. Last year, Cabrera hit .344/.488/.586 with 30 homers, 105 RBI, and 7.3 fWAR. Fielder, meanwhile, hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 homers, 120 RBI, and 5.5 fWAR. So the Tigers now have two players who not only hit for decent averages, hit 30 plus home runs and drive in 100 plus RBI on a yearly basis, but whose production is of All-Star quality and possibly even fringing on MVP-caliber.
Most teams are lucky to have one player like this. The Tigers now have two.
Defense could be a problem, though. Fielder and Cabrera aren’t known for their defensive prowess. Fielder’s just doesn’t move very well due largely to his size and lack of agility. Cabrera has to tools to be a solid defensive player, but his gradual weight gain and laissez-faire attitude have hindered him—so much so that the Tigers had to move him from third to first because he had become a liability at the hot corner.
Now the Tigers are planning to move Cabrera back to third on a permanent basis. He hasn’t manned the hot corner on a full-time basis since 2008; he has a -4.5 career UZR/150, and now that he’s gotten older and is used to another position he’ll probably be even worse now. Then again, this was never about defense. The Tigers feel like they will be able to strike out and outscore their opponents every night, plain and simple.
Meanwhile, the Indians seem to have taken the exact opposite approach when it comes to their corner infield positions. Rather than focus on power and run production, the Indians’ strategy is more defensive-oriented. It’s a little unorthodox, but given the contact-heavy makeup of the pitching staff it makes all the sense in the world. With more sinkerball-throwing, groundball-inducing starters than any other staff in league, the Indians will need a rock-solid defense.
Offensively, the first and third basemen for the Cleveland Indians aren’t going to light the world on fire in 2012. At first base it appears that power threat of the future, Matt LaPorta, has lost his job to the newly signed Casey Kotchman. He isn’t the world’s greatest offensive weapon (.733 career OPS), but defensively he is a substantial upgrade over LaPorta. The hope has to be that the addition of Kotchman’s glove will take some of the pressure off the pitching staff because better fielding means more outs and fewer baserunners.
As for the other options the Indians have at first base, they aren’t really anything to write home about. Shelley Duncan is a good backup, but nothing more. Russ Canzler is still young, but he’s too much of a question mark at this point. Carlos Santana is the starting catcher and his appearances at first will be limited to the days off from he gets from behind the plate because his bat is too valuable to be taken out of the lineup.
Over at third, the Indians are probably going to roll with Lonnie Chisenhall with Jack Hannahan serving as his primary backup, depending on how high Chisenhall’s ceiling is and how quickly he reaches his potential. By no means is anyone expecting Alex Rodriguez-type numbers, but an improvement over last year’s performance and a glimpse of the future are a must if he wants to hold down the job.
At this point in his career, we know what Hannahan is. He’s a solid role player with versatility and one hell of a glove (8.7 UZR at third in 2011). If you can get a few home runs and 40 RBI out of his bat, then it’s been a good year. But, as much as everyone likes Hannahan the person, the Indians aren’t winning a World Series with Hannahan the player as the everyday third baseman. But if Chisenhall becomes everything we’ve been led to believe in his brief time in the organization, then a championship could very well be in play somewhere along the line.
The verdict: The Indians and Tigers are using two totally different philosophies in 2012. The Indians are focusing on sure-handed defense and quiet offense. The Tigers, meanwhile, are going to club you to death with sheer offensive might. Defense may win championships, but whoever said that had never seen Cabrera and Fielder together in the same lineup.
The edge here has to go to the Tigers. They have potential MVP candidates at both corner infield positions while the Indians are rolling the dice with youth at third and still looking for a real solid answer at first.
Which team has better corner infielders?
- Tigers (71%, 15 Votes)
- Indians (29%, 6 Votes)
Total Voters: 21