Mark Trumbo moving to third base might already be the most discussed storyline of spring training for the Angels. Who am I kidding? It is easily the hottest topic in training camp and it was before he even took his first grounder (especially the one that he fielded with his face). People have been endlessly pontificating over whether or not the Trumbomber can handle the transition since the idea first popped up at the end of the 2011 season. So what’s the answer to this major question? Can he pull it off?
Those in the “yes” camp are eager to point that he wasn’t half-bad at first base last season. Amongst qualified players, he finished with the fourth-best UZR at the position and actually led all first basemen in defensive runs saved. For such a large man, he showed surprising range and agility, making several diving stops throughout the year. He also liked to show off his cannon of an arm whenever he could, not that anyone doubted that the converted pitcher had the arm strength. It does not take a big leap of logic to deduce that a player capable of handling one corner infield position well could at least be passable on the other side of the diamond.
Those in the “no” camp love are quick to recall Trumbo’s own tales of how disastrous his previous attempt at playing third base went when he was first drafted. After that comes the obvious argument that first base and third base are very different positions and that almost no player in history has ever switched from first to third at the major league level without any experience at the hot corner. There is a reason these things are never done, right? Besides, just watching Trumbo, one can see that he doesn’t have the softest of hands, as evidenced by his curiously low number of scoop plays on throws at first base. There is also the fact that at 6’4″ and 220 pounds, Mark would be one of the physically largest third basemen in the league. Above all, his foot injury has given him almost no time learn the position. Therefore, it won’t work.
At this juncture, the rules of blogging mandate that I drown you in sabermetrics, heat graphs and spray charts. You’ve no doubt read a number of those such articles in the past few weeks. But I’m not going to do that. (I feel like such a rebel! I really hope the blogger gestapo don’t come for me.)
The reason that I am not going to do that is because whether or not Trumbo can play a reasonable third base kind of doesn’t matter.
It isn’t that defense doesn’t matter. It actually matters a great deal. But in the context of Trumbo’s situation, it is more or less an ancillary part of the conversation. The heart of this issue is that the Angels very much want to get Trumbo at-bats on a somewhat regular basis and moving him to third base is a means to that end. Dipoto and Scioscia know that they need to figure out exactly what they have in Trumbo. Can he develop enough plate discipline so that the team can better take advantage of his power? That is something they will only be able to see if he starts several times per week. From there, they will assess Trumbo’s long-term potential and decide whether or not he is going to be part of their long-term plans. If they realize he is, all the more reason to keep finding a way to play him. If they realize he isn’t, there is an even bigger impetus to keep him in the lineup so that they can showcase him for a trade.
Thanks to Kendrys Morales continuing to move forward on the road to recovery and the short-sighted public promise of 400 plate appearances to Bobby Abreu, there aren’t going to be many opportunities to start Mark at designated hitter or even in the corner outfield. If Morales stays healthy and Abreu doesn’t get traded, Trumbo will be lucky to find 30 available starts at DH and outfield, with maybe only five more coming at first base because of Pujols. That simply aren’t enough at-bats for Mark, leaving the team with no other choice than to forcefeed him at the hot corner.
One thing that the Angels have going for them here is that they have above average defenders or better at every position on the field. That affords them a little bit of a margin of error. Swapping out Callaspo’s decent glove for Trumbo’s, which could be horrific, isn’t going to turn an excellent defense into a lousy one or even an above average one. All they really need from Trumbo is for him to not be a trainwreck that opposing lineups can exploit by bunting at him or loading up on righties to put more pressure on him to make plays. That would be a special kind of bad that is hard to fathom him being since he is a decent first baseman and a major league caliber athlete.
Maybe I am naive, but I think it is a safe assumption that Trumbo’s worst case scenario at third is to be a bad but not abhorrent fielder. In such a case, the Angels should be able to get at least 20 starts out of him. At best, he can be below average, if only because he has so little familiarity with the position. With flyball pitchers like Weaver, Haren and Santana, the Angels are well-suited to hide Trumbo’s defensive deficiencies, something they have already suggested they intend to do. The more comfortable he gets at the position, the easier it will be to find him playing time. That could mean 50, 60, 70 or even 80 starts at third base.
That’s really what we should be asking ourselves as we watch Trumbo try and adapt to this new assignment. Not if he can play at third base, but how much third base can he handle?