The Cleveland Indians and Asdrubal Cabrera came to terms on a two-year contract extension on Sunday that will pay the shortstop $16.5 million over the 2013-14 seasons. The deal buys out his final year of arbitration eligibility as well as his first free agent year.
Given the price, the minimal commitment, and the ability for Cabrera to test the market while still a relatively young player at a premium position, the deal lacks risk for both sides. If Cabrera’s bat continues to develop, or settles in the vicinity of last year’s production, the Indians have themselves an upper echelon shortstop on a very affordable deal. If he regresses a bit offensively and continues to struggle in the field, the deal will likely break even. That’s essentially the definition of a low-risk deal.
No matter the specific dollar-to-WAR calculation used — be it the primitive computation or one with more advanced inputs — Cabrera needs to produce somewhere around 4 WAR over 2013-14 to make the deal worthwhile. Even conservative estimates peg him surpassing that total.
But while this looks like a good deal for both sides, there are two related topics worth exploring: his poor defense with a groundball-heavy starting staff, and his trade value after last season — should the Indians have sold high on him?
Since 2009, Cabrera has an awful -24 UZR, which is the second-worst mark for shortstops in that span, behind only Yuniesky Betancourt. Even Hanley Ramirez fielded more effectively over the last three seasons. Total Zone and other fielding metrics agree that his defense is lackluster, even if the relative degrees of putridity vary. This is of more material concern for the Indians, who boast a groundball-heavy starting rotation.
Derek Lowe brings with him a career 63 percent groundball rate. Ubaldo Jimenez has a career 50 percent rate. Justin Masterson keeps the ball on the ground 56 percent of the time. And Fausto Carmona has a career 59 percent rate.
Since 2010, 86 pitchers threw at least 300 innings, and the current Indians rotation members had the following GB-rate ranks: Lowe – 2nd (58.9%), Masterson – 4th (57.3%), Carmona – 6th (55.2%), Jimenez – 31st (48.0%). The Indians starting staff isn’t just above average at inducing grounders — they are elite in that respect, and have the potential to post the highest groundball rate for an overall rotation.
With all those groundballs put into play, it seems suboptimal to keep one of the worst fielding shortstops around. The numbers don’t lie, either. At the recent SABR Analytics Conference, Mark Shapiro alluded to the fact that the Indians had great gloves at the infield corners, but were weak up the middle. And in an interview with David Laurila in January, manager Manny Acta — a noted progressive thinker — acknowledged the poor fielding ratings but spoke highly of Cabrera’s ability to field the routine plays well.
When building a pitching staff that specializes in this specific area, the next logical step is to ensure that the infield will convert those grounders into outs at the highest possible rate. The Indians won’t do that with Cabrera, so while the two-year deal will likely work out for both sides, it is questionable in that respect.
There is also the matter of his trade value to consider. Not to say that Cabrera won’t continue to improve — he’ll be 26 years old in 2012 — but it’s possible that his increased power was more fluky than a sign of things to come. He hit six home runs in 2008, six more in 2009, and just three in 2010, before pounding 25 home runs last season.
His ISO soared to .187 from a prior three-year average in the low-.100s, and his slugging percentage obviously rose, but he didn’t improve anywhere else. His walk rate remained in the 5-6% range and he struck out more frequently than over 2009-10. He wasn’t hitting many more line drives. He increased his swing percentage both in and out of the zone but saw significant decreases in making contact on both types of pitches.
Suffice to say, there are reasons to doubt Cabrera’s continued improvement and reasons to believe that some other team might have overpaid for his services based on his 4 WAR last season. The Indians consider themselves contenders, however, and were better off with Cabrera than a stopgap. But his signing speaks a lot to incorporating context into contract valuations.
Two years and $16.5 million seems harmless for both sides in a vacuum, but the idea of building one of the most groundball-prone pitching staffs of all time and running out one of the worst fielding shortstops in the game doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
The Indians have to hope Cabrera’s bat continues to improve, because while his WAR totals may justify the deal, he won’t be preventing outs at a rate that maximizes the effectiveness of the rotation.
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