2013 Indians Player Preview: Asdrubal Cabrera

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue our move around the infield with the Indians’ starting shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera.

Background: Cabrera, 27, 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 that deal 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 about the season he was expected to have in 2012. The switch-hitting shortstop hit .270/.338/.423—a virtual carbon copy of his numbers from his breakout 2011 campaign, but with less power—with 16 homers, 70 runs scored, 68 RBI, and 9 stolen bases. Though his power underwent some predictable regression, he made up for it by improving his walk rate (8%) and cutting down on the strikeouts (16%). Scouts seemingly stopped raving about his glove, but in a reversal from previous seasons some sabermetric defense statistics actually rated his defense quite highly.

FanGraphsBaseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all valued his 2012 performance at between 2.4 and 3.0 wins above replacement.

Key factor: Defense. There are those who see Cabrera as one of the best fielders in baseball and there are those who see him as a veritable sieve at shortstop. A year ago one could have characterized the debate as scouts vs. stats, but now the sides are less clear-cut—scouting-based opinions of Cabrera’s fielding seemed less effusive in 2012 than they had in the past, and while some defensive metrics were still quite critical of him (UZR put him at 9.0 runs below a league-average shortstop) others thought he’d turned over a new leaf (Total Zone had him at +10 for 2012).

The uncertainty here isn’t so much from projection as from perception, but it’s significant nonetheless. If you see his glove as a genuine asset, Cabrera is one of the best players in the AL Central; if you see it as a real liability, he’s a thoroughly unspectacular player.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Save for Oliver’s pessimism, the general consensus is that Cabrera will play a lot like he did last year. It’s worth noting that Steamer’s 2012 projection for Cabrera hit the nail almost precisely on the head.

Best-case scenario: Combine the plate discipline improvements Cabrera made in 2012 with the power and speed he flashed in 2011 and you’ve got yourself one of the best shortstops in the game. His wizardry in the field and strong presence towards the top of the lineup for the year’s biggest surprise team make him a shoo-in All-Star and guarantee him a smattering of downballot MVP votes.

Worst-case scenario: The gains Cabrera made in plate discipline last year prove fleeting, just as his slugging and basestealing abilities were. What we’re left with is a solid contact hitter with few other tools and a lackluster glove—a passable performance for a middle infielder but hardly befitting his position as one of the faces of the franchise.

What to expect: After two years of solid hitting it’s safe to say Cabrera is here to stay as a force in the Indians’ lineup. His 2012 performance seems wholly sustainable, so bet on him repeating last year’s numbers in 2013.

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