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Changing places, not positions

3/25/2005

TEMPE, Ariz. -- We've never seen it before. Baseball has watched players switch uniforms, players switch homes, even switch wives. It's had players traded for managers, players traded for radio guys, players traded for a dozen baseballs. But three different playoff teams playing merry-go-round with their starting shortstops? Nope, we'd never seen that. Until now.

In the span of one week in mid-December, the World Series champion Red Sox decided to upgrade from Orlando Cabrera to Edgar Renteria, formerly of the Cardinals. Cabrera needed a home and landed in SoCal with the AL West champion Angels. This rendered obsolete one David Eckstein, who, poetically, took roost with the suddenly Renteria-less Cardinals. When the music stopped, everyone had found a chair. It was a real-life shortstop wheel play.

It would have been one thing for the Brewers, Devil Rays and Royals to goof around with this most important of positions, flailing to find something that finally worked. But for two division winners and one ring-wearing wild card to monkey with success like this, the fair question becomes, are they better off?

It's hard not to believe the Red Sox are better off, moving from Cabrera to Renteria. Cabrera was a stabilizing force after his trade to Boston last July, righting what had been a lurching defensive ship, but Renteria, 29, has for years been the better all-around player. Though he had an off year offensively last season for St. Louis, batting .287-10-72, his .802 OPS over the past three years was the best among NL shortstops, sixth in baseball overall (see chart below).

"And he's no slouch defensively," one major-league advance scout says. "For me, Renteria was one of the best all-around players in the league. A great addition for Boston -- and they don't need much help."

Cabrera didn't mind ceding his position to Renteria, given that the two are good friends, having grown up in adjoining towns in Colombia. (Cabrera's father was a scout for the Marlins when they originally signed Renteria in 1992.) The two even own a condo-building business back home. Cabrera, 30, endorses the idea that the Red Sox made the right move: "I've never been better than him," he said. "Not even now."

Moving on to Los Angeles, which is what Cabrera soon did, the Angels also view their switch as an improvement.

Manager Mike Scioscia isn't one to bash Eckstein, who was all but the Angels' bat-waving, bases-scurrying mascot when the team won the 2002 World Series, but he did note the skills that Cabrera has and Eckstein does not. "With his arm and his range, he's gonna bring us something that's important to our team defense," Scioscia said of Cabrera.

Sure enough, while Eckstein (as the saying goes) "made all the plays" -- his six errors last year led to a MLB-best .988 fielding percentage -- he made .56 fewer plays per game than Cabrera did. Regardless of whether Cabrera might have played for more groundball pitchers, etc., his glove still probably accounted for about 60 extra outs compared to Eckstein's. That's quite an upgrade, even if their offense was similarly poor last year (Cabrera had a .689 OPS, Eckstein .671).
Scioscia said that Cabrera will be particularly valuable with a newcomer (probably rookie Dallas McPherson) playing third base.

"You can let a third baseman really concentrate on a smaller area of plays," he said. "If you have a shortstop who's very limited in range and limited in some of the plays he can make, and you're adjusting your spray charts accordingly, it can put more responsibility on another player. It will be a positive.

"Eck got it done, but he doesn't have the arm strength Cabrera does. It will add to the number of plays he can make. And at that position, that's the priority."

Cabrera considers himself a different player now that he's won a World Series ring. "I learned how to win," he said. "Don't panic." After Boston let him go, he was attracted to the Angels in part because many of their players still had rings from 2002. "Everyone thought that San Francisco was going to win [that] World Series, and they came back and won it," Cabrera said. "I have respect for these guys. They're going to be in contention every year because they know how to win."

The same could be said for Eckstein, of course, though it's hard to rate him as even an average shortstop asset today. Beyond his defensive inefficiencies -- he made just 3.83 plays per game last year, by far the worst among major-league shortstops -- he also lags offensively. His .696 OPS the last three seasons was virtually the lowest among players at his position; though he gets hit by about 15-20 pitches a year and steals the same amount of bases, he makes a ton of outs with almost no pop.

Not surprisingly, Eckstein -- not to mention his new Cardinal employers -- sees his value as more than just numbers. His hyperactive presence will indeed be new to the Cardinals; for all their brain-bashing skill, Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen usually seem somewhere in between somnolent and dour.

"The main thing is the intensity, going out there and giving everything I've got on every single pitch," Eckstein said of what he will bring to his new club. "Whatever it takes to help a team win -- when I'm at my best, I'm getting hit by pitches, I'm laying down bunts. I'm making all the plays. That's what I need to do."

The Cardinals plan to use Eckstein in the leadoff spot, which could sap outs and baserunners from that potent middle of the order. Then again, the production of Eckstein and new No. 2 hitter Mark Grudzielanek (.704 combined OPS) with other clubs last year wasn't drastically different from what the Cardinals got from their own top two hitters, mostly Tony Womack and Renteria (.731). So the drop-off might not be too severe.

"There weren't a whole lot of alternatives," said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who with Renteria and Cabrera off the market gave Eckstein a three-year, $10.25 million contract. "I've talked with a number of American League GMs and managers who say that [Eckstein] will be a solid defensive player. He may not be the most fluid shortstop, but he finds a way to get the job done. And on the offensive side, I had one GM tell me he just drives you crazy. He's a pest."

Eckstein, 30, knows that in the 2004-05 shortstop merry-go-round, the Cardinals came up with the most questionable one of the three. He insists that he won't worry about that, but admits that proving himself is on his mind.

"Definitely," he said. "When you step on the field, especially coming on the great line of shortstops that the Cardinals have had, you definitely have to go out there and do what you can do so they don't miss whoever's been there. The last thing you want to hear is they wish they had someone else. You want to go out and prove you're the right guy."

Eckstein, Renteria and Cabrera will all be doing that in 2005. And hey, if they fail, there's always an easy solution. Can you say three-way trade?

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.