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Orbiting Cleveland: What to do with Cabrera?

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Sometimes, it’s best to start things with a bang. At least that’s how the Cleveland Indians seem to see it.

The Indians wasted no time starting their offseason Thursday. Just one day after the World Series ended, the Indians announced that they had released closer Chris Perez, and the team also completed a move as they acquired left-handed reliever Colt Hynes in exchange for cash. Then, on Friday morning, the Indians exercised the option of right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez (which he voided to become a free agent), and they also declined the option of outfielder Jason Kubel, thus making him a free agent.

So, this is it. The World Series had been over for just a mere few hours, and the Tribe immediately got a head start on its Hot Stove season.

The Perez decision was an obvious one. While many probably did not expect it to happen so soon, it seemed as if it was a foregone conclusion that the right-hander would not be back.

But if that’s the first move that’s made, then the question now becomes, what’s next? Make no mistake about it, this Indians team likely has a handful of moves and goals that they’ll seek to achieve this offseason.

The move to release Perez is likely a decision that was reached weeks ago, and it’s also fair to assume that the front office had made up their mind on a number of other pressing issues as well. This is not the Indians of the past. Every move will be deliberate and calculated, and every move will also be done in an effort to bring the team closer to its ultimate goal — sustainable winning.

Knowing that, it would be interesting to know where the Indians stand with Asdrubal Cabrera. There were rumblings last offseason that the Indians could move the shortstop, but nothing came to fruition. So where do the Indians stand now with the former two-time All-Star?

There are certainly two ways to look at the prospect of trading Cabrera. A case can certainly be made that the Indians should not bring him back as he was just downright awful at times this past season and finished with a line of .242/.299/.402 with 14 home runs and 64 RBI.

To make matters worse, Cabrera was atrocious in regards to plate discipline as he struck out 114 times and drew just 35 walks. According to FanGraphs, Cabrera was worth just a measly 0.6 wins in 2013. Yeesh, with those type of numbers, why would the Indians even want to consider bringing a guy like that back?

Of course, there are other things to consider as well. While it would be nice to deal Cabrera, how much could the Indians expect to get in return?

Cabrera is still well above average in terms of power for a shortstop, but his value definitely is not what it would have been last offseason. He certainly is not going to net the team as large of a return as he would have one year earlier.

With that in mind, perhaps the safest bet for the Indians is to retain Cabrera, at least until the 2014 All-Star break. At the point, depending on Cabrera’s performance other factors such as whether the team is in contention, the Indians can then decide if they should move Cabrera.

Yet again though, it’s a slippery slope. In a perfect world, the Indians would retain Cabrera for next season, he posts a strong first half and they’re then able to a net a couple of good prospects at the trade deadline. The key to all this though is “rebound.” If Cabrera continues to falter, then the Tribe would likely be much better off just dealing him now.

So, it ultimately boils down to what kind of faith the Indians front office has in Cabrera, and that’s probably something that we’ll find out very soon. Ideally, Cabrera will rebound, and there is reason to believe that he can, especially since 2013 does seem to be an outlier in some ways when compared to his other seasons.

However, there are also some other startling things to be aware of in regard to Cabrera. When I think of Cabrera, I usually think of his career in two phases: pre-Orlando and post-Orlando. For those scratching their heads, here’s a preface.

When Orlando Cabrera was signed by the Indians in February 2011, he and Asdrubal immediately took to one another. It seemed like a perfect pairing as Orlando had a track record of sustained success as an infielder, and Asdrubal would obviously do well to follow a similar path.

While Asdrubal likely picked up a number from pointers during his time with Orlando, the most notable was in regard to his swing. Orlando encouraged Asdrubal to not be afraid to drive the ball and swing for the fences. What followed was extraordinary.

In the first half of the 2011 season, Asdrubal hit .293/.347/.489 with 14 home runs and 51 RBI in 88 games. The home run numbers were especially noteworthy as Asdrubal had never recorded more than six home runs in any Major League season prior to that point. His highest home run total in the minors was eight.

Cabrera’s numbers trailed off a bit as the season wore on, and he finished the year with a .273/.332/.460 line, 25 home runs and 92 RBI in 153 games. All in all, it was still a spectacular season for the shortstop.

Cabrera’s numbers took a bit of a dip the following season, but they were still more than respectable. He finished with a line of .270/.338/.423 with 16 home runs and 68 RBI and also made his second straight All-Star Game.

On the surface, it appeared as if Cabrera was on his way to establishing himself as one of the premiere offensive shortstops in the game. Heck, it could be argued that that was already the case after the 2012 season.

But there were also some serious warning signs that seemed to go unnoticed. These signs really only started to crop up in the post-Orlando stage, and they seemed to indicate some marked differences from the pre-Orlando Asdrubal.

The graphic below shows Cabrera’s walk-to-strikeout ratio from 2007 through this past season.

(Courtesy of FanGraphs)

There definitely seems to be a noticeable difference from the earlier years of his career when compared to the more recent ones. Also, it should be noted that 2010 can somewhat be disregarded as Cabrera only played in 97 games that season.

The interesting thing about this all is that Cabrera’s walk-to-strikeout ratio seemed to take the most notable dip after Orlando encouraged him to adjust his swing and approach. Is it a coincidence that the plate discipline has basically evaporated since then?

It’s just telling to see how Cabrera has evolved over the past few years. In 2009, the switch-hitter compiled a .308/.361/.438 line in 131 games with the Indians. He also drew 44 walks and struck out just 89 times.

While Cabrera only hit six home runs that season, his production was still near-elite for a shortstop in the Major Leagues; FanGraphs estimates that he was worth 2.9 wins that season while Baseball Reference has him at 4.2.

It’s pretty clear that the Asdrubal Cabrera that was playing for the Indians in 2009 is not the same Asdrubal Cabrera that is still on this team. In 2009, Cabrera was a much more patient hitter, and his compact swing made him doubles machine; he hit 42 doubles in just 131 games that year, which was tied for 11thin the league. What if Cabrera had played even 20 more games that season? Where would that number be then?

Yet, in comparison, the Cabrera of now seems to always be swinging for the fences. While he does hit his fair share of home runs, they’ve gone down in each of the last three seasons, and we’ve watched his plate discipline evaporate to where it basically disappeared entirely in 2013.

Now, it obviously would be silly to blame Orlando Cabrera entirely for Asdrubal’s decline, but there is no denying that there does seem to be some connection to when he joined the team and Asdrubal altering his game.

So, this then brings us back to the original question. Do the Indians deal Cabrera now or bank on him rebounding and then reassess the question at next year’s trade deadline?

This is almost certainly one of the conversations that will be going on in the next days and weeks. Everyone knows Cabrera is on borrowed time, not only because of his recent poor performance, but also because top prospectFrancisco Lindor seems poised to replace him at a moment’s notice.

The one problem surrounding Cabrera is that it seems to be a gamble to bank on him rebounding from last year’s poor campaign. He is clearly not the same player he used to be, and his skills just seem to have drastically eroded from what they once were.

Let’s say Cabrera goes out and underperforms once again. Then, at the deadline, what are the Indians supposed to do? What would his value even be? If they believe there is a chance of that happening, then they might as well look to deal him now.

A lot of this boils down to the type of return that the Tribe would receive, and I’m a firm believe that they need to pull the trigger on a deal if someone offers even a solid package of players/prospects.

Perhaps the one encouraging thing in all of this is that Cabrera did seem to rebound in terms of plate discipline somewhat nicely during the 2012 season when compared to 2011. His walk percentage was up to 8.4 percent compared to 6.6 percent in 2011 while his strikeout percentage was down to 16.1 percent compared to 17.8 percent in 2011.

That alone does seem to provide some hope that he could come around, but I’m less than encouraged. Sometimes we can use all the statistics in the world, but it really just comes down to the eye test, and when I look at Cabrera, I see a declining player whose skills have been eroding for quite some time.

Sure, he does still hit a decent amount of home runs, but what does it matter when basically every other aspect of his game is not where it was a few years ago? Heck, I’ll be honest — I miss the Cabrera of 2009.

So, here we are, and the Indians are about to dive headfirst into the Hot Stove season. There are a number of pressing issues this offseason, but perhaps none are more intriguing than the question of what to do with Cabrera.

It seems most likely that the Indians will probably be patient with Cabrera, and wait for him and his play to come around.

Yet here’s the problem — is it ever a good idea to wait around for something that may never happen?

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