The Pittsburgh Pirates might have bigger fish to fry, but that should not preclude them from reeling in a still-lively catch in Asdrubal Cabrera.
Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington has all but hinted at the fact that his club might not be as aggressive during this hot stove as many would like. By now, the refrains of what this club actually needs has taken on a familiar sound as steady as that of a snare drum: Shortstop. Fourth outfielder. Left-handed relief help.
Yes, all of those are legitimate needs. We’ve even profiled a few of them here.
Asdrubal Cabrera is not a perfect fit for those needs. Far from it, actually. But he is a fit for any team that needs run production at a very reasonable rate.
Run production? Reasonable rate? Sounds like the Pittsburgh Pirates should give Cabrera a look.
Profile and Performance
Today is Cabrera’s 33rd birthday. He broke into the major leagues in 2007 with the Cleveland Indians. He has accumulated 25.5 fWAR over those 6,322 plate appearances, and carries a 106 wRC+ rating for his career.
He has enough patience in that veteran bat of his — 17.5 percent strikeout rate; 7.5 percent walk rate for his career — and is coming off of three straight seasons of making hard contact at a 35 percent or greater clip. This includes a high-water mark 38.5 percent in 2018. That rate put him fourth among qualified second baseman.
Second base is just one of the locales in which Cabrera can ply his wares, as he has spent time at shortstop and third base throughout his career. SS actually serves as the spot in which Cabrera has seen the most time throughout his career, though recent years have slowed him to the point where second and third are more regular. Still, Cabrera put in close to 600 innings at the position last year, and played mostly passable defense, though perhaps marred by 11 errors in 2017.
Cabrera has some pop, slugging 60 home runs and 98 doubles over the last three seasons. His on base percentage and batting average both dipped last season as part of a .262/.316/.458 slash, down from .280/.351 in 2017. Perhaps the roughly five percent increase in strikeout percentage year over year (20.1 percent in 2018; 15.4 percent in 2017) is partly to blame.
Cabrera produced, warts and all. A 111 wRC+ and 2.7 fwar season is something that many clubs would sign up for at a middle infield slot, regardless.
Though would they sign up for that production from a 33 year old? That may be the ultimate question.
The case for
- Cabrera has simply remained productive as he has aged. Only twice has he posted seasons with an OPS of less than .700, with none coming after 2014. Though his on base percentage has fluctuated, he has remained a consistent hitter by average over the past four seasons.
- Though his home run power, too, can come and go, Cabrera is a near-mortal lock for 30 doubles each and every season. The Pittsburgh Pirates have had exactly one season in which a second baseman hit 30 doubles over the last four years: Neil Walker’s 2015 campaign, with part-time second baseman Josh Harrison hitting an honorably mentioned 29 in 2015.
- The hard contact numbers above deserve to be highlighted once again relative to Cabrera’s age. While 33 is hardly ancient, the fact that his hard-hit rate has improved in each of the last three years speaks volumes for his longevity, at least in terms of what a team like the Pirates might be able to wring out of his remaining baseball years.
- The multi positional flexibility is useful, of course. With him in tow the Pittsburgh Pirates can mix and match Cabrera with Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer or others at the keystone in any number of configurations, though that picture gets considerably cloudier if Adam Frazier spends as much time at second base as Huntington has hinted at.
The case against
- But, the ugly truth is there, plainly seen. Cabrera is on the wrong side of the clock, and teams will have to be cautious in doing their internal projections for his next few seasons.
- Is the spike in strikeout percentage a fluke? Maybe. But also, maybe not. Consider this: Cabrera’s chase rate (swings at pitches out of the zone) as defined by Statcast came in at 29.1 percent, a 3.7 point jump year-to-year, and above the MLB-wide rate of 28.2 percent. Is a 0.9 difference enough to cast serious doubt on his ability to maintain his level of production? Probably not. It is just one data point, after all. Add in a once-again rising overall whiff percentage (22.7 percent in 2018, up from 19 percent) though, and you may be onto something.
- Though a switch hitter, Cabrera’s recent production against left-handed pitchers leaves a lot to be desired. This OPS versus LHP in 2018 came in at .646 across 167 PAs, as opposed to a .824 mark against right-handers.
- Can the Pirates expect Cabera’s power stroke to remain? Of the 227 major league hitters that had a minimum of 10 home runs, Cabrera’s average distance on those dingers of 385 feet ranks 198th, and is not far from the bottom (377 feet). They all count the same though.
- Everyone knows the Pittsburgh Pirates need to get better defensively. Cabrera won’t help in that regard. He was a minus-23 in terms of Defensive Runs Saved across all positions.
What it might take
Cabrera will be caught in the push-pull vortex that happens when an aging mid-level veteran who tries to grab perhaps his last multi-year contract of his career pushes against the market that may not be offering that. Don’t take my word for it. Our old friend Travis Sawchik recently detailed how MLB perceives older statesman free agents, and it is not kind.
Having said that, there is no reason that Cabrera cannot command at least a two-year pact worth at least $15 million. The offensive production should still be there to warrant that amount at the very least.
In a vacuum, the Pittsburgh Pirates would certainly take Cabrera’s run production. Despite his defensive lapses and the questions surrounding his sustainability, Cabrera’s bat is one that Pittsburgh could put at a few different spots in their everyday lineup while adding length.
Truthfully, the time to acquire Cabrera might have been at the 2018 trade deadline, as the Philadelphia Phillies picked him up for the low, low cost of a mid-tier double-A pitcher. Now, the club has seemingly charted its course towards giving Frazier ample playing time in the middle infield, while continuing to dedicate themselves towards giving Newman a fair shake. The timing for the Pirates to bring Cabrera into the fold is thus questionable at best.