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Rays add Cabrera; is a Zobrist trade next?

12/30/2014

Seeing the Rays reportedly sign Asdrubal Cabrera to a one-year deal (pending a physical) might make you wonder about them. That’s because while Cabrera was once a hitting star for a middle infielder, he reached free agency having lost much of his luster. He’s headed into the tail end of his 20s after having hit .241/.303/.394 over the last two years, a big tumble from where he had been in 2011-12 (.272/.335/.443). That said, the Rays didn’t get dumb after GM Andrew Friedman left; Matthew Silverman’s front-office crew still boasts some of the smartest people in the game. And when you look at Cabrera’s performance record at the plate, there’s something obviously wrong -- something that the Rays might be ready to fix.

Let’s start by looking at the breakdowns within Cabrera’s track record at the plate between that peak in his age-25 and -26 seasons and his drop-off when he was 27 and 28:

2011-12: .302 BABIP, .171 ISO, 7.5% walk rate, 17% K rate, 3.7 pitches per plate appearance

2013-14: .277 BABIP, .153 ISO, 7.1% walk rate, 19% K rate, 3.8 pitches per plate appearance

The biggest difference you’ll notice is in the results on his balls in play, which you might describe as luck looking at just that number -- but I wouldn’t call it that. That big drop on balls in play is an outcome of what Cabrera was doing, which is hitting a lot more fly-ball outs. At his peak, he had a ratio of groundouts to fly outs of 1.06; in the last two years, that number went down to 0.77 as he started hitting a lot more catchable fly balls. And his strikeout rate is up in part because he’s reaching for more balls outside the zone. That isn’t “luck,” those are symptoms of problems with approach and execution.

If there’s one team that has done a good job of getting guys turned around at the plate recently, I’d argue it’s the Rays, because they got good results taking a chance on and milking good years out of other good-contact, medium-power hitters like Casey Kotchman (2011) and James Loney (2013). I’d credit them with seeing some turnaround potential here as well. If they get a one-year bump from Cabrera at the plate the way they did with Kotchman and Loney (in his first year), both they and Cabrera win. If not, it’s just a one-year deal, an experiment worth trying.

The other thing about this move that might have you scratching your head is Cabrera’s glove work. After starting off as a flashy shortstop earlier in his career, Cabrera’s numbers have declined badly, from a guy who would be in the black via metrics like Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved to minus-16 at shortstop in 2013 and minus-7 last year before his trade to the Nationals. But with Yunel Escobar signed for the next two years (plus a club option for 2017), it doesn’t seem as if Cabrera’s going anywhere but second base. As smart as the Rays always have been, especially on defense, the publicly available data also doesn’t smile on Cabrera’s virtues at second base -- while he was at plus-11 at the keystone for the Indians back in 2008, his third of a season in Washington was graded at minus-10. Maybe that number goes up with the Rays, but before suggesting they have a magic bullet on that score, it’s worth noting that Escobar’s DRS numbers at shortstop dropped in both years since he joined the Rays, going from plus-15 to plus-4 to minus-24 last year.

But what signing Cabrera really gets me to wondering is whether or not this anticipates a trade involving superutilityman Ben Zobrist. The majority of the middle-infield at-bats should belong to Cabrera and Escobar, and the Rays’ outfield already has Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, David DeJesus, Steven Souza and Brandon Guyer in it (plus prospect Mike Mahtook on the way). That isn’t to say Zobrist is being crowded out of the lineup -- far from it -- although we still have to see if new manager Kevin Cash likes to employ as many moving parts as Joe Maddon did. But Zobrist’s OPS has slipped into the .750 range the last two years. That's still good, but he’s clearly not the slugging star he once was, he’s a year removed from free agency and he’s entering his age-34 season.

Putting all that together, the Rays might think they’re better off dealing Zobrist, anticipating that they’re not going to re-sign him or risk an arbitration offer. The question then would be whether they can get a better offer now or in July, but signing Cabrera first certainly makes a Zobrist deal that much easier to make in the next six weeks.

A last thought? I guess this also says something about when the Rays think once-touted middle-infield prospects Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham will be ready: not soon. But if Cabrera’s deal is just for one year as reported, they’ll have another year to get there.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.