Cabrera, Nationals Come Back for More

Asdrúbal Cabrera hit .323/.404/.565 (145 wRC+) in 146 plate appearances for the Nationals down the stretch in 2019, which I suppose is the kind of performance they had in mind when they reportedly signed him up for another year in D.C. last week. Then again, the fact that the deal was for just one year, and $2.5 million, suggests that they also had in mind the 79 wRC+ he put up in 368 plate appearances for the Rangers at the beginning of the season. At that price and term — which, unlike many this offseason, comes in under the AAV predicted by both Kiley McDaniel and the crowd ($6 million) when Cabrera placed 48th on our Top 50 Free Agents list earlier this winter — it won’t hurt the Nationals much if Cabrera is more like the player he was in Texas than the one he was in the sacred fall, but it sure would be nice. Anyway, we’ll all find out soon.

It’s probably easiest to understand this move as one intended to make Josh Donaldson’s representatives — not to mention the Cubs’ front office, who’re dangling Kris Bryant — a little less confident that the Nationals are dead-set on replacing the recently-departed Anthony Rendon with a player of similar caliber (see also their deal with Starlin Castro last week). I’m not sure the deal is all that effective on those terms, as any team would prefer to have Donaldson or (particularly) Bryant playing third base for them instead of Cabrera. But in the reasonably likely event the Nationals start the season with neither star in-house, this deal means they will not have to routinely start, say, Jake Noll at third base (though, to be fair, the more likely option is Carter Kieboom).

So here again we have a deal that’s difficult to evaluate without the context of moves yet to come. For my money, Cabrera’s age (34) and Jekyll & Hyde performance last year suggest that Washington would be better off with him playing backup to a star-calibre starter, but you don’t need me to tell you that. The more interesting question, then, is whether there’s anything in Cabrera’s profile that suggests he’s at risk of imminent offensive collapse — which would be harmful to the Nationals whether he’s getting lots of starts or not. I’m not sure there is. Cabrera’s power is still mostly intact — his .181 ISO over the entirety of 2019 was higher than that in five of his last seven seasons — and even during his down period with Texas to start 2019, you didn’t see the kind of calamitous drops in contact rate that usually presage poor performance.

My money, then, would be on an acceptable but not outstanding 2020 at the plate from Cabrera, particularly if he’s deployed in part-time role that maximizes his plate appearances against right-handed pitchers, against whom he has historically had much more power. That kind of role is certainly possible even if the Nationals don’t sign Donaldson or acquire Bryant, as they still don’t have a first baseman (Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams have yet to sign 2020 contracts) and also need to find a place to play all three of Castro, Cabrera, and re-signed holdover Howie Kendrick. There are only so many days you can run a five-man infield out there.

And if the Nationals do nab a star third baseman? Then Cabrera becomes a fine backup across the left side of the infield and a capable contributor at the plate, where you don’t have to contribute much to produce well more than $2.5 million in value. In fact, given Cabrera’s still-present power I’m a little surprised that he agreed to a deal of this length and value, and suspect that there might be a degree to which he was willing to take a discount to return to a place he’s clearly comfortable — this will be his third stint in D.C. after a spell at the end of 2014 and last year’s run through October. This is a “meh” deal for the Nationals that turns into an excellent one if they acquire another star infielder, and won’t hurt them that much even if they don’t. I truly cannot wait for spring.





Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

It is strange that this entire article was written without a single reference to Carter Kieboom. In the event that no one else gets signed, it’s Kieboom at 3B, Castro at 2B, and Cabrera steps in if one struggles or gets hurt and if they need a day off.

If they sign Donaldson, then one of two things happens: Kieboom goes back down to AAA to hang out; or one of Castro/Cabrera parks themselves on the bench while the other one serves as the swing backup.

To me, this says the Nationals (like the Twins) are pretty pessimistic about landing Donaldson, and that he’s probably going back to the Braves.

carter
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carter

To me, this move is signaling they don’t have faith in Kiebooms ability to contribute yet. This team has moved prospects quite fast (Soto, Robles, Turner) so I think this is more a statement on them not thinking he is ready yet.

eaeolian
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eaeolian

I think it may speak more of control than readiness. If they can keep Carter at AAA for another year, it spreads out re-signing the Turner/Soto/Robles/Kieboom/Garcia core they’re looking at in the future.