Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mike Shannon Did It - Why Not Hanley & Miguel?

Third base - The Hot Corner - has been a hot topic during the off season.  While World Series MVP David Freese - a third baseman by trade - has been making the national scene - from Leno to Ellen to some sort of Country Music Awards shin-dig; the Hot Stove League has been filled with heated Hot Corner debate, on a couple of fronts.

It all started when the "new-look" Miami Marlins signed free-agent shortstop Jose Reyes in December to supplant incumbent-former-All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez - a young man with a good track record for pouting; who seemed nonplussed with the idea of vacating the safety and security of his All-Star position for one that is dangerous and - worse yet - potentially humiliating.

More recently, Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera is gladly accepting the challenge of moving over to third base to make room for his new teammate, former Milwaukee Brewers All-Star slugger Prince Fielder.  Although Cabrera has played two full seasons at third base while a relatively lean member of the pre-Miami-Florida Marlins (2006-'07), it remains to be seen how the current, larger-than-life version of Cabrera will fare.  While the extra "padding" he's acquired over the past several years may protect his internal organs from trauma in case his glove isn't quick enough; the big question:  Will he be able to successfully execute enough fielding opportunities to avoid becoming a defensive liability?

For Hanley Ramirez, perhaps his biggest challenge will be dealing with the inevitable miscues at his new position without going ballistic.  He's a remarkable athlete who should be able play third base reasonably well once he adjusts to its nuances; however, if he goes off the deep end before he has a chance to grow into the position, he may be better off finding another team to call home - one that needs a decent shortstop who specializes in hitting.

While Cabrera and Ramirez deal with their new challenges in 2012, it brought to mind a similar transition which happened forty-five seasons ago, on a team that was surprisingly poised for a World Championship - the '67 St Louis Cardinals.

Coming off a dismal sixth place finish in 1966 (83-79), the Cardinals created a minor stir in the baseball world on December 8, 1966 when they traded third baseman Charlie Smith to the New York Yankees for their unpopular and disgruntled right fielder, Roger Maris.  Maris, who was never comfortable in the glare of the New York spotlight, welcomed the change of venue as his career was winding down.  Adding Maris to the roster created a temporary log-jam in right field, which was quickly addressed when the Cardinal hierarchy decided to move incumbent right fielder, Mike Shannon to third base; filling the void created with Smith's departure.

Shannon, with no previous major league experience at any infield position - let alone third base - eagerly accepted the new challenge.  His approach to learning the new position was what he referred to as "The Army Way" - a simple and pragmatic way to play defense.  He described the process in the following manner:

*Get in front of ball
*Knock it down
*Pick it up
*Throw it to first base

Mike Shannon may have been the worst defensive third baseman in the National League in 1967, but he survived.  Without getting overly bogged down with saber-metrics, Shannon's fielding deficiencies allowed an extra dozen or so runs to score over the course of the season than "average".  Fortunately, nobody was really keeping track of that kind of stuff back then (his "range" was also below average), so Shannon's first season at third base was relatively stress-free.  By season's end, his fielding percentage of .919 (.950 was league average) was hardly noticed by any Redbirds fan, as St Louis not only won the pennant, they proceeded to knock off the Boston Red Sox in a classic Seven Game World Series.

It wasn't pretty, but Shannon's mission had been accomplished.  To his credit, his defensive skills at the hot corner improved dramatically the following season (only slightly below average), as the Cards cruised to their second straight pennant; this time losing to Detroit in another classic Seven Game Fall Classic.

For nervous fans of the Tigers and Marlins; relax.  Your new third basemen should be able to get the job done without killing the team.  After all, if Mike Shannon could do it; why not Hanley and Miguel?


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