Apparently, James Loney has won the Dodgers first base job, since Nomar Garciaparra is now taking grounders at third, and could become the Dodgers regular third baseman as early as Friday. While I'm happy to see Loney in the Dodgers starting lineup, Nomar at third could actually be more disastrous than Nomar at first.
Three weeks ago, I said that there was a good chance that Nomar might never return to form, and he's done nothing since then (.294/.306/.324) to change my opinion. While switching positions will put Nomar's numbers in a nicer context, the average third baseman is a worse hitter than the average first baseman, it's not a huge jump. Last year, the average third baseman hit about five percent worse than the average third baseman. Basically, Nomar's .281/.321/.338 line isn't going to look much better at third than at first. Maybe his bat might move all the way up to replacement level at third(he's at -4.1 VORP right now), but is that really something to hope for? Right now, Nomar has an OPS 123 points lower than Wilson Betemit's and 41 points below Tony Abreu. Until Nomar turns it around, not a guarantee by any means, the Dodgers offense will suffer with Nomar at the hot corner.
The main drop off won't occur offensively, but defensively. While Nomar was somewhere between a good and a great defensive first baseman last year, this year he's taken a huge hit. His zone rating is now closer to the immobile tubs of goo in the league, like Carlos Pena, where as last year he was near the top. Small sample size, maybe, but I have noticed a decline in Nomar's defense this year. We are now going to take this man, who has fielded the ball just about as well as Prince Fielder this year, and we're going to move him to third base. Shifts up the defensive spectrum rarely happen, and if they do, they happen to players who excel at their position. Nomar can barely handle first base right now, and while Betemit has been no great shakes himself (his .709 zone rating would be last amongst qualifying third basemen), he has, at the very least, experience at third base. In his last stint at third base, Nomar put up almost the exact same zone rating as Betemit this year (.708 versus .709) in a similar number of innings (296 versus 303). While both performances fall under the small sample size warning, they give at least a starting point for discussion. If that .708 zone rating is indicative of Nomar's true ability, and the defensive decline Nomar is showing this year is true, Nomar could very well be the worst third baseman of the last decade. The lowest recorded zone rating since 2001 was the .680 put up by Travis Fryman in 2002. Nomar came pretty darn close to that number in 2005, and could easily fall below the Fryman level thanks to the defensive decline he experienced this year, and the mere fact he's playing a position he hasn't played for two years.
If Nomar has to be in the starting lineup, then it is probably better that he keeps Betemit out of the lineup rather than Loney. However, if the Dodgers think Nomar solves their third base problems, and thus keep Andy LaRoche in the minors or keeps them from making a trade, then this could end up hurting the team more in the long run. If the Dodgers had a third baseman that was competent defensively, it would probably make Nomar a worse choice at third rather than at first, as it is, he'll just continue to be a drain on the team unless something big changes.