Now that we’re waiting for these last few days to pass before pitchers and catchers report, it’s worth remembering that beyond the usual camp fights and reps as players get into regular-season shape, we’ll also see a few players challenged as they never have been: challenged to change positions.
Every club has different motivations for attempting this sort of thing: immediate need, making room for a major free agent or fulfilling a long-term plan for a younger player. What are the 10 most interesting attempted position switches to watch this spring?
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, from 1B to 3B: Cabrera’s bulk might seem like a major stumbling block to his making a jump to the hot corner now that Prince Fielder is manning first base. Although Cabrera started at the hot corner for the Marlins, he was a regular there in only two full seasons, 2006 and 2007; Baseball Info Solutions graded his defense 27 runs below average across those two seasons.
Tigers skipper Jim Leyland has plenty of experience with making the best of a bad situation at the hot corner. He tolerated Bobby Bonilla’s fielding at third base for the ’97 Marlins despite long exposure to Bonilla’s bad hands and scattershot arm as a Pirate back in the ’80s, for example. But fundamentally, can Cabrera do it? That seems like a stretch, but over a full season, he might not have to. The Tigers can rotate him or Fielder to DH now and again, and Cabrera also has plenty of experience in left field -- another position where the Tigers don’t have to play any one guy regularly.
With Leyland in the dugout, it’s worth keeping in mind that no manager in baseball today is more aggressive when it comes to using defensive replacements -- even if Cabrera acquits himself better than expected, don’t be surprised if Brandon Inge keeps busy as a frequently used substitute.
2. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins, from SS to 3B: Another move made to make room for a free agent. The immediate expectation is that an athletic shortstop like HanRam should be more than capable of jumping to third base. Shortstop is supposed to be harder, after all, so the expectation is that Ramirez might go from a questionable glove at short to a defensive asset at third.
However, it’s worth remembering that not all of these moves turn out well. As Michael Humphreys documents in his excellent "Wizardry: Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed," Chipper Jones was an example of a former shortstop with tremendous athletic ability moved to third, only to deliver initially awful results in his first several seasons. Humphreys goes on to point out that Alex Rodriguez hasn’t become a great or even a good third baseman since starting out as a competent shortstop, and if your memory goes back to the ’70s and ’80s, neither did Toby Harrah.
So Ramirez’s value at third base is no sure thing, and how well he adapts will be a matter of hard work in camp.
3. Neftali Feliz, Rangers, from closer to starter: We’ve been through this before, as Feliz was prepped to start for the Rangers last spring only to wind up back in the bullpen. This time around, with veteran closer Joe Nathan in the fold, the transition should stick. Feliz has consulted with Pedro Martinez on the nature of the challenge of moving to the rotation -- a move Pedro had to make when the Dodgers distrusted his ability to withstand the workload of starting.
In Feliz’s case -- unlike Pedro’s -- his size or stature has never been a stumbling block, and he’s always had the broad assortment of plus stuff you’d associate with a top starter. Between the plus changeup he added in 2008 and the power breaking stuff he hasn’t had to use as often out of the 'pen, he’ll do more than keep people guessing. Because he’ll be entering his age-24 season, the Rangers will be sure to monitor his workload, but every other light is green on this project.
4. Daniel Bard, Red Sox, from reliever to starter: If Feliz’s transition is part of a grand design, Bard’s seems more a matter of immediate need. However, it’s worth remembering that Bard started out as a starting pitcher prospect and a first-round selection. He didn’t really turn the corner with the slider that now complements his 97 mph fastball until he moved to the ’pen in the minors. Will he be able to throw it as effectively a second or third time through a big league lineup? His changeup might wind up becoming the key off-speed pitch in his arsenal that gets him all the way through 90-100 pitches and into the sixth inning.
5. Mark Trumbo, Angels, from 1B to 3B: This hasn’t gotten nearly the same kind of attention that Cabrera’s has in even less time, but that’s because Trumbo’s success is not a critical component to the Angels’ plans the way Cabrera’s is to the Tigers. General manager Jerry Dipoto is adamant that, after he recovers from a stress fracture in his foot, Trumbo’s move off first base to make way for Albert Pujols won’t be to one position but to a superutility role, playing all four corners and DH as Mike Scioscia tries to find ways to squeeze Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells, Kendrys Morales and Trumbo into the lineup when there are just two lineup slots they can have to themselves.
Even if Trumbo’s healthy, there’s the question of whether he can really make the jump to third. He’s never played there in the minors, let alone the majors, and he was better known as a top pitcher in high school when the Angels drafted him. As experiments go, this seems desperate and might not survive to see the light of Opening Day.
6. Chris Sale, White Sox, from reliever to starter: This move is more like Feliz’s shift to the rotation than Bard’s, because it was anticipated from the day the White Sox drafted him in 2010 that he had the stuff to eventually start. But his arm was good enough to make the majors in a relief role just weeks after his selection. With Mark Buehrle’s defection via free agency, a slot has opened up, so the Sox can proceed with what they’ve always wanted from Sale: a southpaw tower of power capable of pumping pure gas from the mound. Although 2012 hasn’t been a season to look forward to on Chicago’s South Side, watching Sale every fifth day should be something people pay to see.
7. Jayson Werth, Nationals, from RF to CF: This isn’t guaranteed to happen, but it’s a very likely outcome should top prospect Bryce Harper somehow wind up making the team as the starting right fielder. The argument over whether Harper will be ready is one major hurdle, but whether Werth would be able to handle center field over a full season is another.
In baseball history, only two men as tall as Werth’s 6-foot-5 have ever played anything close to every day as a center fielder: Alex Rios of the White Sox over the past two years and the Phillies’ Von Hayes for big chunks of 1984 and 1985. Werth’s listed weight, 220, is heavier than either Rios' now or Hayes' then -- he’s simply a much bigger guy. Drew Stubbs is another big man in center -- he’s 6-foot-4, but also almost 20 pounds lighter. The Braves’ Dale Murphy was famously big for center, but at 6-4 and a listed weight of 210, he was also smaller than Werth.
If Harper makes a case to the Nats to play on Opening Day, could Werth really handle the pounding of racing gap to gap over a full season? If you have your doubts, you’re not alone, especially in light of GM Mike Rizzo’s recent decision to bring back Rick Ankiel (although on a minor league deal).
8. Jim Thome, Phillies, DH to 1B: As Jayson Stark pointed out last month, Thome’s challenge in moving back to playing a position might be remarkable, but he won’t be the only famous forty-something to have spent time at first base. But because he's played all of four games at first base in the past six seasons, concerns about his durability given his extensive track record for injury -- including two DL stints last season -- come to the fore.
However, even with the initial expectation that Thome will be little more than a Sunday starter and regular pinch hitter, you’ve got the open question about how much playing time in left John Mayberry Jr. might have to log, as well as the dubious proposition that Ty Wigginton will hit enough to handle the spot. Given the uncertainty about his lineup, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel might well be tempted to take a few chances with Thome.
9. Daniel Murphy, Mets, utility to 2B: It remains to be seen how serious the Mets are about attempting to return Murphy to the keystone after he was knocked out with knee injuries -- while playing second base, no less. He has never been able to handle second base as a regular at any level as a pro, having played just 19 games there in the minors. This is a lot like what the team went through with Keith Miller more than 20 years ago. Even with the “Hal McRae rule” to protect second basemen, a basic level of agility is required at second base -- to protect yourself and to move around the bag effectively -- and there’s reason to doubt Murphy has it after injuries to both knees, if he ever had it in the first place.
10. Sean Doolittle, Athletics, 1B to pitcher: Speaking of knee injuries, bum wheels essentially ruined Doolittle’s shot to stick as a position player. The former supplementary first-rounder from the 2007 draft was a two-way star at Virginia in college. Now the A’s are trying to recoup some value from their investment by putting that arm to good use on the mound. He made an initial effort on the mound last season, throwing an inning in rookie ball. You can never know how these things will turn out, but Sergio Santos is the most recent example of a strong-armed player enjoying an overnight success with a move to the mound; A’s fans might have at least this one small chance to daydream.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.