When it comes to fish-out-of-water defensive madness, the focus of the early season is on Miguel Cabrera. Rightfully so, as the last time Cabrera stood at third base with a glove was in 2008, when he made five errors in 50 chances. There's a strong possibility that Cabrera will swallow a baseball this year. Literally swallow a baseball. Make a cartoonish *gunnk* sound, look around sheepishly, and attempt to tag the runner out with his stomach. And then infield warmups will end.
But there's another interesting fielding experiment going on this spring, and it's in Phillies camp. Jim Thome probably had to borrow someone else's glove to stand at third base in Cleveland for a few seconds last year. He hasn't played more than three games at first base since 2005, the last time he was with the Phillies. But with Ryan Howard out (and his prognosis is not looking as good as hoped) the Phillies are hoping Thome can give them a few innings at first.
Thome showing any sort of ability to stick at first base in limited duty is important. The alternative isn't that palatable, even if only for two or three months:
At least he's consistent, right? That's Ty Wigginton, who has hit more like Yuniesky Betancourt than Ryan Howard over the last few years. Last season Wigginton became the fourth player in Rockies history to get more than 400 at-bats and finish with an average below .250, which is just one of a few red flags that don't bode well for the 34-year-old's future.
Thome, though, can still hit. His worst on-base percentage in the last 20 seasons: .359. He hit 15 home runs in just 277 at-bats last year, and he hit 25 in the 276 at-bats the season before. He was signed to be a pinch-hitting force, but as Howard's injury has been slow to heal, Thome will get more than a few innings at first.
Wigginton's career on-base percentage against right-handers is .313. He's not exactly Keith Hernandez in the field himself, so the only reason he should start against right-handing pitching is if Thome is really that bad. A lot of teams can live with the defense that they get from whatever mashing galoot ambles down their path. But sometimes there are players whose defense is just too wretched to abide. The most famous example is Mike Piazza in his late 30s. It just wasn't going to work.
The Phillies might still be the favorites in the NL East, but the competition is tough. There are three other teams with a legitimate shot to win the division, which means that even a single win or loss can make a difference for the Phillies. The difference between Thome and Wigginton over a two- or three-month stretch might be a single win. It'll be Thome's defense this spring that will make the decision easy.
Or maybe Placido Polanco can move to first and Thome can play third. Hey, Thome did it last year. Says so at Baseball Reference and everything.