As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s presumed starting shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera.
Background: Cabrera, 26, signed with the Seattle Mariners as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2002—when he was 16. In 2006, the Mariners traded Cabrera to the Indians for first baseman Eduardo Perez, who went on to hit .195 with a .545 OPS in 43 games with Seattle. Awful as this looks now, it wasn’t as bad as the trade in which the Mariners sent Shin-Soo Choo to the Indians less than a month later, or the 1993 trade in which Seattle gave the Indians another shortstop: Omar Vizquel.
Last year: Cabrera had a breakout year, swatting 25 home runs with 92 RBI and 87 runs scored—all career highs. He also hit .273/.332/.460 (118 wRC+) and tied a personal best with 17 stolen bases en route to an All-Star selection. Per Orlando Cabrera‘s spring training suggestion he tried swinging for the fences, and it worked for him. Despite fading as the season wore on, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference valued his 2011 production at 3.6 and 3.7 wins above replacement, respectively; Baseball Prospectus was more skeptical, yet still put him at an above-average 2.7 WARP.
Key factor: There are a lot of questions about Cabrera—whether his power is sustainable, how much to read into his late-season slump, whether the fact that his 2011 BABIP was 21 points below his norm suggests bad luck—but the biggest unknown is his glove. It’s not a matter of predicting what he will do so much as interpreting what he does.
Popular perception of Cabrera is that he is one of the best fielders in the game. He’s made far more than his share of web gems, and he was a finalist for a Gold Glove last year. But sabermetric defensive stats dislike his fielding—specifically, his alleged lack of range. They disagree on just how bad Cabrera’s glove is (FRAA is the harshest, calling him almost 20 runs below average in the field), but they all concur that his fielding leaves something to be desired and have said so ever since he moved to shortstop.
Some see him as one of the best fielders in the game, some see him as one of the worst. There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides, and the question could swing his value by as much as three full wins. If you think he’s a butcher in the field, he’s a slightly above-average player. If you think he’s a Gold Glover, he’s an MVP candidate.
Given how many questions there are about what Cabrera’s true talent is, it’s amazing how clear the consensus is here. A good projection system tries to hedge its bets—in a case like Cabrera’s, the middle ground is a much safer bet than a total regression or a complete encore— but even so it’s startling how much these projections agree.
Best-case scenario: Cabrera’s power isn’t just here to stay—as he enters his age-26 season, he adds more. He sees better pitches to hit thanks to greater protection in an improved Indians lineup, and with the experience of another full season under his belt he avoids another late summer collapse. Combine that with his already-fantastic defense and he could win an MVP.
Worst-case scenario: He’s the player we saw in August (.705 OPS) and September (.709 OPS), not the one we saw in May (.947 OPS). His power surge turns out to have been a phase and he abandons his new approach. Essentially it’s back to 2010 (.693 OPS, 85 wRC+), when he made his living just by hitting the ball, not by hitting it far. His bat can no longer make up for his already-lacking defense and he becomes just another unremarkable middle infielder.
Most likely scenario: I’m with the projection systems. A .772 OPS for a shortstop with good speed is a pretty solid player, even if (as I do) you see him as a subpar defender. He’ll take a backseat to Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis in terms of anchoring the lineup, but he’ll still be a big piece of this team.