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The Cabrera Dilemma

For the last five seasons, certain truisms have come to fruition with eery consistency. Mark Prior is going to get injured and miss most of the season. Alex Rodriguez will post gaudy numbers and still become the subject of intense scrutiny. Curt Schilling will make controversial claims in interviews or on his blog. These are just a few examples. Another example, despite occurring on a somewhat smaller stage in terms of popularity or importance, is that Daniel Cabrera of the Baltimore Orioles will fail to live up to his potential.

The 6’9″, 270-pound righty has been a full-time starting pitcher since 2004. Known primarily for bringing the heat, Cabrera has always struggled with control problems. Still, everyone in the Baltimore organization held out hope that he could somehow harness his raw ability into something exceeding potential. Suffice it to say, this has not happened, outside of mere glimpses.

His FIP marks from 2004-2008: 5.10, 4.02, 4.20, 5.01, 5.61. In 2005 and 2006, Cabrera appeared to be on the verge of making himself a quality pitcher. Appeared is the key word, however, as his FIPs were a bit deceiving. In 2005, he struck out 8.76 batters per nine while posting a BB/9 of 4.85. Granted the walk rate was down from the 5.42 in 2004, and the strikeout rate had practically doubled from the 4.63 in the same season, but walking five batters per nine innings is not efficient at all.

The next season, his strikeout rate again rose, this time to a gaudy 9.55. Unfortunately, his walk rate rose to a career-worst 6.32. Somehow, Cabrera managed to post a 4.20 FIP and 4.74 ERA despite walking over six batters per nine innings. On top of his FIPs being a bit deceiving in that regard, the best ERA of his career came in 2005, at 4.52. Even when he looked good, he was not really anything special.

In 2007, his FIP rose to 5.01; his ERA jumped to 5.55; his K/9 lowered to 7.31; and, luckily, his BB/9 decreased to a still poor 4.76. He was not walking as many hitters in comparison to the previous three years, but the mark did not portend greatness by any stretch of the imagination, and his ability to miss bats seemed to be on its way down. Last year, Cabrera reduced his BB/9 to a career-best 4.50. Unfortunately, his strikeout rate fell to 4.75, which primarily led to a 5.61 FIP, below replacment level.

Daniel’s 97 mph fastball in 2004 has steadily decreased to its 92.6 mph average right now. The frequency at which batters swing at his pitches out of the zone has dropped from 23% to 19% in this stretch. Unfortunately, the rate of contact on these outside pitches has almost exponentially increased, rising from 35% to 48% to 55% to 70% over the last four seasons.

He is throwing much slower, striking batters out at a below average rate, and walking hitters at a below average rate. His strand rate has always hovered around the league average, but when you allow that many baserunners, the LOB would need to be well above average to serve as a counteracting force.

Marcel pegs Cabrera for 170 IP in 2009 at a 4.95 FIP. How does that stack up? Well, a Replacement SP would pitch about 150 IP at a 5.50 FIP. The remaining 20 innings would go to a Replacement RP at a 4.50 FIP. Cabrera’s projection calls for 94 runs allowed; the Replacement SP would be responsible for 92; and the Replacement RP for 10. Put together, we have the 94 runs of Cabrera vs. the 102 runs given up by the replacement level.

This puts Cabrera at +8 runs above replacement, and +0.8 WAR. Assuming a dollar valuation of $4.8-$5 mil/win, a reasonable contract for Cabrera would be for one year, ranging from $3.6-$3.9 mil. And, again, this is assuming that his strikeout rate can rebound to slightly above average at worst, and that his walk rate can remain close to the career low posted last season. Forgive me, but I am rather skeptical of either of those occurring.

Daniel was non-tendered last week, meaning that the Orioles could still theoretically bring him back, or that other teams could inquire about his services. Sometimes teams will non-tender players they want to bring back, but at a lesser fee.

Last year, Cabrera made around $2.9 mil after avoiding an arbitration case in which he wanted $3.3 mil and the team offered $2.6 mil. Even if he was offered arbitration, it isn’t likely that, given his poor 2008 campaign, he would jump up to something in the $6-7 mil range. This practically confirms that the Orioles just want to cut ties with the 28-yr old righthander.

Even though all the signs are pointing towards him lacking the skills and stuff to be a successful pitcher, it seems very likely that someone will take a flyer on him and hope to resurrect his career. Paying him anything over, say, $3.8 mil for his services would be a mistake, however. If a team can snag him for something in the vicinity of Mike Hampton‘s recent contract, or even the 1-yr/$2.5 mil w/incentives deal given to Chan Ho Park, little risk would be involved, but anything more would be a mistake.