LAKELAND, Fla. -- The first test of the new Tigers came at the hands of Austin Chubb, a catcher for Florida Southern College. The 22-year-old smoked a bullet to third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who backhanded it cleanly on a hop and fired to first baseman Prince Fielder for the out.
If that can be duplicated, say, another 400 times or so, the Tigers will be able to silence skeptics of their Big Switch.
"You guys can all put a rest to that," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Friday before his club played against the local college. "[Cabrera] is playing third base."
The Tigers, who ended the Yankees' 2011 season in a tight American League Division Series, are going boldly into 2012 with an eyebrow-raising arrangement. Cabrera, 6-4 and listed at 240 pounds, agreed to move back to third base -- where he began his Tigers stay in 2008 -- so Fielder can play first base after signing a nine-year, $214-million contract.
The Fielder signing was the result of Victor Martinez's season-ending injury in January, when he tore his left ACL while preparing for the season. It gives the Tigers arguably baseball's best third and fourth hitter combo, albeit at a price. Many in baseball simply don't think that Cabrera playing third base is viable.
One official from another team who thinks it could work joked, on the condition of anonymity, "[Cabrera] will let in three runs and drive home four."
"I think he's going to be fine," Leyland said. "He's got to catch the balls he can catch and throw guys out. Is he going to have the range of [Brandon] Inge? No. But he just needs to catch and throw."
"I'm not trying to impress anybody," Cabrera said. "I'm trying to do my job."
At the least, this plan has good karma. If you remember how miserable Derek Jeter looked upon the arrival of Alex Rodriguez in the Bronx, or if you could see how unhappy Hanley Ramirez appears about his move to third base so Jose Reyes can play shortstop, it would strike you how well Cabrera and Fielder get along. The two men share a row of lockers, with three players in between, and joke around with apparent comfort.
"He's a special guy," Cabrera said of Fielder.
"None of this could have really happened [without Cabrera changing positions]," Fielder said. "That alone got me comfortable even before I got there. For him to do that, that means a lot.
"This is his team. He's in a position where he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do."
Leyland said: "That's not really a problem here. We've got good guys. They want to win."
Fielder earned a reputation as a superb teammate in Milwaukee, where he shared the fans' love with fellow star Ryan Braun. "Being a good teammate is just being there for somebody, being happy when they have success," Fielder said. "It's not being selfish, I guess. Being a friend.
" . . . You learn to get along with everybody. How to get along with different personalities. It's just like school."
The real grades here don't start for another month. If you like watching guys study, however, it doesn't get much more compelling than seeing Fielder and Cabrera at the corners.