Across The Seams: Asdrubal Cabrera Is the Steal of Free Agency
If there is one thing to be said about this offseason, it’s that it has been unusually slow. The most talked-about free-agency class of the decade has been sitting through a long winter of good ol’ nothing. Players such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still waiting to be signed to megadeals worth $300 million (and they might not get that). Meanwhile, there is a creeping fear among some mid-tier free agents that they may not have a place to call home come April. Tuesday, that changed for one player:
#Rangers in agreement with free-agent IF Asdrubal Cabrera on a one-year contract, sources tell The Athletic. Deal will be for less than $5M. Pending physical. Cabrera will play third base.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 22, 2019
That’s right, folks: The Texas Rangers have signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a deal that is reportedly worth $3.5 million. On the surface, this move is unimpressive and unimportant. The Rangers have close to a zero chance of competing in an AL West that the Houston Astros will likely lock up with relative ease, and it seems that Texas only made this move to fill the vacuum left at the third base slot when Adrian Beltre retired in November.
What makes this deal significant, however, is the number attached to it. Paying a player of Cabrera’s caliber this little money is at best stingy and at worst highway robbery. Admittedly, Cabrera is not a good defensive second baseman (although he is known for making the occasional unassisted triple play). His poor range limits his ability as a middle infielder, as shown by the atrocious -17 DRS he put up at second base last season, which was only beaten out by Daniel Murphy’s -18 DRS. However, if we take a closer look at the second basemen who were signed this offseason and how they performed over the past three years, it becomes obvious Cabrera was woefully underpaid.
Notable Free-Agent Second Basemen (2016-18)
|Player||Age||Avg.||HR||wRC+||DRS||Signing team||Length||Total||WAR projection 2019|
|DJ LeMahieu||30||.312||34||103||29||NYY||2||$24 million||2.0|
|Daniel Murphy||34||.326||60||137||-42||COL||2||$24 million||1.9|
|Jed Lowrie||35||.270||39||111||-9||NYM||2||$20 million||2.0|
|Brian Dozier||32||.253||97||116||-9||WSH||1||$9 million||2.2|
|Ian Kinsler||37||.257||64||103||28||SD||2||$8 million||1.7|
|Asdrubal Cabrera||33||.274||60||114||-23||TEX||1||$3.5 million||2.0|
Now, some of Cabrera’s stats are underwhelming compared with the other guys on this list (especially his DRS). He wasn’t one of the elite defensive middle infielders in this year’s free-agent class. But still, defensive stats are known to be wonky, and Cabrera has put up a better wRC+ than three of the five other guys on that list (he is only two points below Brian Dozier). And oh yeah, he was only paid $3.5 million! All of this raises the question: Why did no team make a better offer to Cabrera?
Looking at the table above, one may deduce that his abysmal defense up the middle cost him some money, and I would agree that it should. But we know that defensive stats are unreliable year over year, and Cabrera’s bat is just as good as most of the second basemen in this class. Also, while most of the players in this list are trending downward after weak seasons in 2018, Cabrera is trending upward. Out of the six guys on the list, Cabrera trailed only Jed Lowrie in WAR, while the other three guys fell below his 2.7 mark.
Looking forward into next season, Cabrera is set to put up 2.0 fWAR. On a contract like the one he signed, that is not good value. That is not even great value. That is otherworldly value. The Rangers are paying $1.75 million for each win that Cabrera adds. That dollar-per-WAR value was only bested by the Cardinals signing of Adam Wainwright ($1.5 million/projected WAR), a 37-year-old who is extremely prone to injury.
Best Value Contracts Signed This Offseason
|Player||Team||POS||Projected 2019 WAR||Contract AAV||Dollars/WAR|
|Adam Wainwright||STL||SP||1.3||$2 million||$1.51 million|
|Asdrubal Cabrera||TEX||2B/3B||2.0||$3.5 million||$1.75 million|
|Jonathan Lucroy||LAA||C||1.9||$3.4 million||$1.80 million|
|Brian McCann||ATL||C||0.9||$2.0 million||$2.10 million|
|Ian Kinsler||SD||2B||1.7||$4.0 million||$2.29 million|
|Lonnie Chisenhall||PIT||OF||0.9||$2.8 million||$3.21 million|
Compare that $1.75 million/WAR with other teams that are paying more than $6 million for each win their second baseman racks up this coming year, and it becomes obvious the Rangers have made one of the best value moves of the offseason by adding a solid utility infielder who can swing the bat well enough to be have placed sixth on the wRC+ leaderboards over the past three years as a second baseman.
Now you may be thinking: Why on Earth are you comparing Cabrera to these second basemen? Ken Rosenthal said that he’ll be spending the majority of his time at third base. Well, to that I would answer that you are certainly correct, but teams in the market for a second baseman had to at least take a look at Cabrera. This makes sense, as over the course of his 11-year major league career, Cabrera only has 471 innings logged at the hot corner, with most of his time being split between short and second. And even if you do want to compare him with other third basemen, over the past three seasons, his 114 wRC+ would place him just below Eugenio Suarez on the leaderboard for that stat, good enough to rank in the top 15 third basemen.
Still, the best offer he received was only $3.5 million. That means one of two things: Either no team valued Cabrera at more than the $3.5 million he signed for or Cabrera waited too long and the market for second basemen narrowed (forcing him to move over to third).
Both of these are probably true to some extent. Teams are placing more and more value on defense these days, and Cabrera is greatly lacking in that department. There was also a large supply of second basemen and only so many teams contending for them. Once the blue-chip names were picked up, the market for a guy like Cabrera completely disappeared.
Still, one has to sit and wonder why teams like the Milwaukee Brewers, who currently have Hernan Perez penciled in at second base, didn’t make a move on Cabrera. Presumably, they are trying to contend in the NL Central, and adding a guy like Cabrera for say $4 million a year would help improve their chances against the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. Or what about the Boston Red Sox? The reigning world champs have an injury-prone Dustin Pedroia with only Brock Holt backing him up at second base. Certainly adding Cabrera to that roster would bolster the team’s infield depth. Or the ever-so-stingy New York Mets, who added Lowrie this past month — surely they would’ve preferred to write a check that would have saved them $16 million.
Yet none of these teams wanted Cabrera. Some teams made moves for players other than Cabrera, and some made none. But the point is that the market for a hard-hitting middle infielder shrunk so much that he ended up being signed for next to nothing to play at a position he isn’t used to. Perhaps, the lesson from all of this is that teams should be patient in free agency and players should not. The Rangers demonstrated great patience, and although they likely won’t contend next season, they got away with one of the biggest steals in recent free agency history.
(Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)