The Point of Asdrubal Cabrera

Asdrubal Cabrera’s signing with the Rays. There was thought the free-agent middle infielder would get multiple years, given the number of teams looking for a shortstop or a second baseman, but by the reports, Cabrera is signing for one year and something in the vicinity of $8 million. Call it the A.J. Burnett contract, if you’d like. Cabrera’s an unexciting player, signing for unexciting terms.

Whenever you think about a fresh transaction, there’s a desire to find and identify that certain hidden something. That one thing about a given player that made him so appealing to his new team. I don’t think there’s a certain hidden something about Asdrubal Cabrera. He’s a fairly established entity: he’s a relatively poor defensive shortstop who used to be a better player than he is. He can play short but he fits better at second, and his overall offense is close enough to being average you can get away with calling it average. What do you have when you have an average hitter who’s roughly an average overall defender? That’s an average player. Cabrera’s close to that, and maybe a little bit worse.

This isn’t a franchise player, the Rays are signing. This isn’t a player many will remember as having been a Ray five or ten years down the line. This is just one of those small, fine deals every team has to make, and the most interesting thing about it is what it means for other players. The Rays are signing Asdrubal Cabrera, which means more and more people are talking about Ben Zobrist.

While we’re here: it’s a perfectly reasonable contract for Tampa Bay. There’s that whole line of thought about how there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract, and while that doesn’t always hold up, it’s pretty hard to out-and-out hate this. Cabrera last year was almost a two-win player. He was worse before that, but better before that. He projects to be worth more than $8 million in the season to come. He only recently turned 29 years old.

It’s not that the salary is cheap. The years are cheap. For the most part, one-year contracts this offseason have been given to bounceback candidates or rehab types. Kendrys Morales got two years. Billy Butler got three years. Jed Lowrie — a good Cabrera comp — got three years. Michael Morse got two years. Adam LaRoche got two years, and so on and so forth. Regulars available for one year? Alex Rios. Torii Hunter. Clint Barmes and Corey Hart, sort of, but not really. It’s a mild surprise the Rays were able to get Cabrera for what they got him for.

But, he’s there now. And now the Rays have options. The Rays always had options, but now they have a new player in house, ready to plug a hole that might be opened up. It would be possible for the Rays to proceed just like this, but clearly, there’s reason to speculate about Zobrist and Yunel Escobar. There’s flexibility here, and the Rays are forever thinking creatively.

The Rays could trade Escobar. He’s signed to a reasonable two-year deal. Then shortstop could go to Zobrist, or Cabrera, or even Nick Franklin. Zobrist is able to handle the position. Cabrera isn’t a disaster. If the Reds could be good with Shin-Soo Choo in center field, a team in 2015 could be good with Adrubal Cabrera at shortstop.

But, Escobar clearly has a reputation, and he’s coming off a down year, in particular defensively. Which makes Zobrist the more interesting trade candidate. He has one remaining year of team control, at a modest $7.5 million. Because the Rays intend to try to win in 2015, they should want to keep a player as valuable as Zobrist is. But because the Rays are also the Rays, and because they have to operate in a fashion similar to the A’s, Zobrist now is a piece the Rays probably would like to exchange for a longer-term asset or two. With Cabrera in the fold, the Rays don’t need Zobrist. Zobrist is a lot better, of course, but the Rays always need to think about the big picture, and this is an opportunity to sell one of the more valuable players in the game.

Because Zobrist can bounce around between the infield and the outfield, he’s valuable to a greater number of teams. Because there are so few options remaining on the market, he seems all the more valuable. After the year, Zobrist could be extended a qualifying offer, so there would eventually be compensation coming. The Rays can trade Zobrist without crippling themselves, and they should be able to trade him for a piece or two that could help right away.

This offseason, we’ve already seen a number of trades involving higher-profile one-year players. So that gives us some perspective on what Zobrist might be able to bring back.

The players all brought good talent back. Heyward might be the most comparable player, in terms of cost and performance. Heyward’s much younger than Zobrist is, so that’s a point in his favor, but they’ll both have similar 2015 salaries, and they both provide a lot of their value through defense, while being relatively under-powered. The Heyward trade would be the kind of deal the Rays would want to make. Probably, they’d want someone with better numbers than Miller, but Miller has plenty of obvious raw ability.

The strongest link so far has tied Zobrist to the Giants, but there’s little use in speculation given the number of teams who could accommodate Zobrist and have him fill a hole. If the Rays do trade Zobrist, they should get back a big-leaguer. Depending on that big-leaguer, maybe also a prospect. Zobrist would be a major subtraction from the 2015 Rays, but short-term value and long-term value would come back, and this is just how you all but have to navigate the kind of situation in which the Rays find themselves. In which the Rays have always found themselves, really.

The Rays don’t have to trade Zobrist. Just because it would be the most exciting, high-profile move doesn’t mean it’s the guaranteed move. Maybe they’ll trade Yunel Escobar instead. Maybe they’ll trade an outfielder instead. Maybe they’ll trade no one, instead. But the Rays have considered trading Zobrist for a while, and with Asdrubal Cabrera now signed to a very modest contract, he can function as a positional replacement who’s good enough to not be bad. In the Rays’ ideal world, they wouldn’t have to mind the money so much. They wouldn’t be so incentivized to trade Ben Zobrist. But the Rays don’t operate in their ideal world, so they have to try to make the most ideal world out of the world they have. Signing Asdrubal Cabrera isn’t interesting, directly. But indirectly? There’s a lot going on here.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

In an environment where the cost of a win is $7 million this looks like one of the best bargains of the off season.

9 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

Or Desmond Jennings could go, with Kiermaier sliding to CF and Zobrist to RF. Or they could slide Jennings to LF, Kiermaier in CF and Zobrist in RF with Guyer/Dejesus handling DH and Forsythe/Franklin backup IF. They don’t have to trade zobrist. undoubtedly they will put an offer on him next year and get a draft pick back. Escobar is equally valuable at $10mil for 2 years. Who knows how this will play out.

9 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Escobar at 1.7 WAR projected 2015 (can generously double that for 2016) is more valuable @ 2/$10 than Zobrist projected at 3.8 WAR for $7.5 million, plus the draft pick (>$6 million)? Check your data — Zobrist projects to provide the same value for less money, should return a pick, and provides all his value in a concentrated time frame.

9 years ago
Reply to  Costanza

so Zobrist surplus value roughly 27 million (21mil +6 draft pick) and Escobar at 3.5 WAR over two years roughly 12mil surplus value, I guess you got me but you missed the point which is the Rays could trade Jennings, Zobrist, Escobar or maybe even Loney. Depends on a) who they get best value for and b) who they might want to get rid of. and it’s moors, not moots.

Susan from NBC
9 years ago
Reply to  Costanza

The card said ‘moops’.