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Asdrubal Cabrera: Buy low or don't buy at all?

With the A's hole crater at middle infield, it might make sense to sign Asdrubal Cabrera.

Will this guy be arguing in green and gold next year?
Will this guy be arguing in green and gold next year?
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Billy Butler hype has died down, we should continue re-re-visiting the question of the A's middle infield, which really has been a question for three years running at this point. Ever since Jemile "untouchable" Weeks and Cliff Pennington both tanked, the A's middle infield has been a major problem that was at times patched but never really solved.

We all know that the A's bargain bin free agent targets typically fall into one or more of these categories:

  1. Old
  2. Coming off an injury
  3. Terrible at at least one important aspect of the game
  4. Scrap heap/low risk fringe players
  5. Coming off a bad year

What it boils down to is that these characteristics all mean "can buy low on a short term contract."

Where does Asdrubal fit in?

He broke into the league at age 21 with Cleveland as a hotshot young shortstop. When he wasn't injured, he generally hit at a high level for a SS, culminating in two consecutive all-star appearances in 2011 and 2012. The years since then, including his contract year of 2014, have evinced a steady decline leading to the deadline deal that sent him to the Nationals last season. His career slash line is solid for a shortstop, .268/.330/.409/.740. A 29 year old hitter like that would shore up the current Punto/Parrino/Sogard portion of the lineup. However he may hit more like his 2014 numbers (.241/.307/.387/.694). He did show some pop with 14 homers but his .694 OPS is pretty much exactly how he has hit since his last all-star appearance in 2012. [COMING OFF BAD YEARS]

He's played most of his major league innings at SS but has a significant body of work at the 2B position and is said to be comfortable at either position. His defense is hard to glean from advanced stats. UZR thinks he is horrible. DRS thinks he was basically neutral as a SS until 2013 and then 2014. Both metrics agree that he was just abysmal in 2014 defensively. He also had 20 errors last year. [TERRIBLE AT ONE IMPORTANT PART OF THE GAME]

Given that we can check off two of those boxes, it's worth discussing him as an A's target. The question is whether we'll see a solid hitting, decent fielding shortstop, or if we'll see Jed Lowrie's 2014 slash line with worse defense. He's a wide variance free agent, but he's only 29 and it would seem that he could still be a useful player.

However, given that he has OPS'd below .700 since the 2012 all-star break, I'm hard pressed to expect much of an uptick with the bat. The flip side of that of course is that no team will want to spend that much money on him, especially with relatively few teams looking for a SS and Jed Lowrie (his white doppelganger), Stephen Drew and Hanley Ramirez still hanging around. MLB trade rumors thinks six teams (including the A's) are looking for a SS/2B. With the various internal options available on these teams and three relatively equivalent players looking for jobs, I doubt we'll see anyone get a deal bigger than the 3/30 that Billy Butler got despite the premium position.

Why has Cabrera declined?

If it's something fixable, then perhaps the A's can fix it and get some bang for their buck. Beyond the Box Score had this to say at last year's trade deadline:

For the Nationals, Cabrera should be an immediate offensive upgrade, despite a somewhat disappointing season with the stick. 2014 has seen Cabrera hit at a .306 wOBA, about 20 points lower than his career average, while also suffering some erosion of his bat-to-ball skills, reflected in his drops in contact rates and concomitant rise in strikeout and swinging strike rates over the last season and a half. Also troubling is a slight drop in his power numbers this year, hitting at a .140 ISO after two seasons of .150-plus ISO. Some of these concerns can be explained by some nagging injuries, with Cabrera missing time due to back spasms and leg injuries.

He essentially started swinging more, swinging at more bad pitches, and making less contact. Is that a trend? Is that fixable? How much did those "nagging injuries" with the back and legs affect his range and strength at the SS position? Is he sufficiently recovered from those injuries or are those threats to re-occur?

Perhaps a move to the easier 2B position can spark a resurgence with the bat and hide some defensive shortcomings. Again -- he's only 29 years old, he's a two-time all-star SS, and until two years ago his defense and offense were fine. predicts a three year, $27 million contract for Cabrera. Any team that shells out that money is taking on a fair amount of risk but it's not crippling.

I personally think with the lukewarm market for shortstops in general, he could be had on a two year deal with a team or mutual option. If so I would pull the trigger on a 2/18 deal and still perhaps grab Stephen Drew as bta47 suggested. That is, assuming we're out of the Hanley sweepstakes (we are).

A's middle infield was very bad in 2014

Just to give you some perspective, here's a comparison of 2014, Cabrera's worst year of his career, with the A's 2014 middle infield. As a bonus, he is a switch hitter who does not need to be platooned. Here is where I remind you that most of these guys (besides Lowrie) were platooned as much as possible and still put up these numbers:

Jed Lowrie 136 .249 .321 .355 .676 93 6 13 -10, at SS
Nick Punto 73 .207 .296 .293 .589 79 2 7 1, split at 2B and SS
Eric Sogard 117 .223 .298 .268 .567 67 1 10 3, mostly at 2B
Alberto Callaspo 127 .223 .290 .290 .580 68 4 3 (57 games) -3 in 41 games at 2B
Andy Parrino 21 .152 .216 .283 .498 41 1 1 4 at SS and 2B
Asdrubal Cabrera 146 .241 .307 .387 .694 97 14 20 -17, at SS and 2B

Given that 2014 was basically rock bottom for Cabrera, even a slight bounceback makes him a significant upgrade. It also allows the A's to save a roster spot with a guy who is an everyday starter, likely at least 2 WAR, and jettison some of our glut of not good MLB/AAAA players. I think it's worth kicking the tires on him at least, but a Butler-like deal would give me some pause.