The Time is Now to Move Cabrera
Asdrubal Cabrera has been at the center of trade rumors for over a year now, and the Indians are rapidly running out of time to deal him. The 27-year-old shortstop will reach the end of his contract after the upcoming season, and with the much-anticipated Francisco Lindor waiting in the wings, there is no possibility Cabrera will return in 2015.
Quite a few teams could use an upgrade at shortstop or second base this winter, but Cabrera’s disappointing 2013 season left the Tribe in a tough situation. With one year remaining on his deal, this would be the ideal time to flip Cabrera for young pitching prospects.
Unfortunately, hitting .242/.299/.402 with just 14 home runs didn’t exactly inspire teams to line up for the chance to take on his $10 million salary. His wOBA dropped from .332 to .307, and his strikeout rate jumped to 20.3 percent while his walk rate declined to just 6.2 percent.
After combining a rough year at the plate with his usual poor defensive metrics, Cabrera isn’t likely to net the Indians an elite starter or a pair of top prospects.
If the Tribe decides to keep Cabrera, they won’t know whether he will continue his downward trend or return to the player he was in 2011. His .283 BAbip last year was the lowest of his career – a 20 point drop from the previous two seasons and a 30 point drop from his career average – suggesting that there’s a good possibility he’ll bounce back.
It seemed at times that every at-bat resulted in a weak ground out, but he actually had the lowest ground ball percentage of his career, at 36.4 percent. The perception that he was swinging for the fences was more accurate – he also had his highest-ever fly ball rate, at 40.7 percent. Since a lower ground ball rate would ordinarily be a positive thing, it seems as though Cabrera got at least a little unlucky.
Regardless of the cause for his struggles, the Indians will probably be limited in their ability to market Cabrera.
One possibility could be the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals just finished up a World Series where shortstops Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso combined for one hit in 20 at-bats, and it showcased a yearlong trend. Kozma, the everyday shortstop last season, had a .548 OPS, and ended the season with a -0.2 WAR.
St. Louis desperately needs an offensive upgrade, and they have shown interest in Cabrera in the past. They drafted six shortstops in the 2013 draft, but they need someone to fill in until one of those prospects is ready to take over.
If they were to negotiate a trade, the Cardinals certainly wouldn’t be giving up Carlos Martinez or Trevor Rosenthal for Cabrera. They would be more inclined to offer someone like Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly. Neither is a top of the rotation arm, but Lynn has been the better pitcher.
Lynn, who has a 3.34 career FIP, struck out 23.1 percent of batters last season but walked nearly nine percent. Kelly had the better walk rate, at 7.5 percent, but it accompanies a career FIP of 4.00 and a 2013 strikeout rate of 18 percent.
Would Cabrera-for-Lynn be a fair swap? It’s difficult to compare pitchers to hitters using WAR, but for what it’s worth, Lynn’s was 3.3 last season, while Cabrera’s was just 0.6.
Another option could be the New York Yankees. They re-signed Derek Jeter to a one-year deal worth $12 million on Friday, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to spend the entire season at shortstop. The Yankees can afford just about any free agent that they desire, but if they somehow miss on Robinson Cano and Jhonny Peralta, they might be willing to take a risk on Cabrera. Last year, they trotted out a lineup that included Jayson Nix and Brendan Ryan, and they probably would prefer not to do that again.
Phelps, who has spent parts of the last two seasons with the Yankees, has more of a track record than Nuno. Through 186.1 innings, he has a career strikeout rate above 22 percent but also has a walk rate above nine percent. Last season, he lowered his FIP to 3.81, compared to 4.32 in 2012.
Nuno was drafted by the Tribe in 2009 and made it as far as Lake County before being released in 2011. He had a 4.50 FIP and 2.25 ERA through 20 innings in the big leagues last year, but what impressed the Yankees was his 3.35 FIP in Double-A Trenton in 114 innings during 2012.
Either pitcher would be worth pairing with a younger Yankees prospect in a trade, like right-hander Rafael De Paula. De Paula, a starter from the Dominican Republic who can touch 99 MPH, struck out 146 batters through 113 innings in the low minors last season.
The Indians have a difficult decision to make. Cabrera’s value right now is low enough that the Indians would have to accept either low-end starters or prospects that still need time to develop in the minors. In return, they’d have to give up their only everyday shortstop in a year where they intend to compete with the Tigers.
Mike Aviles is a terrific role player but should not be a starter. He hit .252/.282/.368 last season, which is perfectly adequate off of the bench, but not for an everyday player on a contending team. The Indians don’t want to put themselves in a position where they are worse because of a trade. Aviles can fill in for short periods of time, like he did during Cabrera’s injury last year, but they shouldn’t go into the season relying on him.
The Tribe’s other option is to let Cabrera begin the year as an Indian, see how he performs throughout the first half, and trade him at the deadline if his value suddenly increases. That might be the most logical decision if they truly believe he’ll improve next season, but if he doesn’t, it hurts whatever remaining value he has left.
The Indians’ decision about what to do with Cabrera might have the biggest impact of any move they make this winter.