When Asdrubal Cabrera signed a contract extension with the Cleveland Indians in 2012, Manny Acta (rightly) described Cabrera as having “carried the offense“ in 2011. Fresh off a 25-home run season in which he was the third-best offensive shortstop in baseball, Asdrubal Cabrera’s value was at its zenith.
In a sense, it was the worst time for the Indians to sign him.
Fast forward only two years later to April 2014, the two-year, $16.5 million contract set to pay Cabrera $10 million this year is less unambiguously well-received – in much the same sense as John Elway is not unanimously beloved by Browns fans, or in the same sense as LeBron James in 2011 was slightly less Playing For The Cavaliers. Even in the best of times, Cleveland commits to shunning The Astrocab.
His contract is perhaps one of the largest contributing factors to the great heap of disdain. After a 2013 season in which he posted subpar offensive numbers, coupled with the worst shortstop defense in the league, demands for top prospect Francisco Lindor mounted, both locally and nationally, only adding to enmity toward the shortstop – not only was he objectively below-average, he was perceived as the force holding back the best cornerstone shortstop prospect in the game. Given that, bitterness swelled at the idea of giving $10 million to the below-average Asdrubal Cabrera.
Before that line of rhetoric takes off – i.e.: that Cabrera’s contract is a substantial overpay – there are two decisively mitigating factors: service time, and the quality of Asdrubal’s 2014 play.
First, the end of 2013 marked the end of Asdrubal’s sixth year of service time. As a general background note, service time typically works as follows: a team has at least six years of control over a player. For the first three years of service time (slightly under three full seasons), the club is obligated to pay the player only the league minimum. After at least three years of service time have been achieved, a player is eligible for arbitration, which awards players increases in salary below free agent prices but still, for an above-average player, somewhere in the range of $2 million to $6 million. For the next three seasons, arbitration will award raises to that player consummate with service time and merit. After at least six years of service time have elapsed, the player is eligible for free agency.
With this in mind, the first year of Asdrubal’s two-year contract extension covered 2013, his third year of arbitration, and paid him $6.5 million. Given that he and the Indians agreed to a 2012 salary of $4.5 million, a $6.5 million dollar salary would have been the most probable result of an arbitration raise.
After the 2013 season, Asdrubal would have been eligible for free agency; however, both Asdrubal and Cleveland agreed to exchange this first year of free agency for $10 million in advance – for Cleveland, it presented the opportunity for a discount if Asdrubal improved; for Asdrubal, it guaranteed financial security if he completely fell off the map. The extension, like all extensions, was a gamble: Cleveland was gambling on Asdrubal’s 2013 performance being better (and thus, his 2014 contract being a bargain), and Asdrubal in a sense was gambling on his 2013 performance being poor – thus, ensuring he would be paid well in 2014 even if he had a poor 2013.
Dan Gilbert owns a casino and has won two draft lotteries in the last four years. The Dolans could take a lesson in gambling from him, because they lost the Asdrubal gambit badly. Asdrubal’s 2013 season, for reasons that have been addressed previously, was disastrous.
Yet there’s a very important distinction to be made here – the Indians have lost the gamble, but whether the extension itself is a loss depends entirely on Asdrubal Cabrera’s performance in 2014. Because the six years of service time artificially decrease the amount of open-market free-agent talent, the talent that does reach the free agent market experiences substantial salary inflation as a direct result; the aforementioned article hence lists Asdrubal’s salary, $10 million, as a probable open-market salary for a slightly below-average player – for instance, a player with a decisively above-average .735 OPS combined with terrible defense and poor baserunning.
That hypothetical .735 OPS, suggested as a probable 50th-percentile performance for Asdrubal in 2014, isn’t far from the mark: Asdrubal’s current (as of this article’s writing) 2014 OPS is .744. This difference is a substantial change from his .700 OPS of 2013, but an entirely expected one, and not a change large enough to catapult him from ‘team weakness’ to ‘team strength.’ The biggest change between 2013 Cabrera and 2014 Cabrera came with his defense.
To suggest that a player with Cabrera’s six errors hitherto in 2014 has improved over 2013 is both surprising and quite true. To improve substantially upon his 2013 defense, all Asdrubal Cabrera needed to do was not be the proud owner of the worst shortstop defense in the majors. The largest driver of Asdrubal’s problems last year was his lack of range; this year, Asdrubal Cabrera’s range has been approximately average for a shortstop.
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As one might expect from a player who has made six errors through 367 innings in the field, Asdrubal has made a decreased rate of plays within his zone – that is, the zone within which an average shortstop might be expected to make plays.
What has increased – quite noticeably – is the number of plays that Asdrubal has made outside of his zone, or plays that a shortstop is not necessarily expected to make. As a result, UZR regards Asdrubal’s range is as approximately average but his error-prevention worse-than-average – on the aggregate, awarding Asdrubal a defensive grade slightly below average relative to the shortstop position as a whole.
One must note that the context of this discussion is relative to the position of shortstop as a whole. As perhaps the most demanding defensive position on the field, the league-average shortstop is a defender who is very likely substantially better on defense than even an elite defensive first baseman. To receive average or even only slightly below-average defense from a player with Asdrubal Cabrera’s offense, whose batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are all notably better than league average, and whose base-running has likewise been above-average (both in terms of base-stealing as well as the much-discussed ‘little things,’ such as first-to-third), yields what is altogether a good baseball player.
Cleveland doesn’t need to love Asdrubal Cabrera, nor will it: fans are unlikely to ever forgive him for the double play in the 2013 Wild Card game. Yet whatever enmity does exist, and whatever shortstop happens to be knocking on the door of I-71, the reality is that Asdrubal Cabrera is, right now, an above-average player, one whose starting role would not be out of place on a playoff team. If Lindor is not MLB-ready by the beginning of the 2015 season, this fact will soon make itself clearly and bitterly resonant.
Small-money contracts typically don’t look terrible, but as noted, the Indians almost certainly lost the gamble of Asdrubal’s contract. The team was hoping Asdrubal would consistently produce well, but his unfortunate 2013 season closed the door on that opportunity. Counterintuitively, however, the fact that this contract extension is a loss only illustrates the tremendous benefits of contract extensions on the whole.
Between his defense and his offense, Asdrubal is likely to contribute approximately 3 WAR in 2014, a solidly better-than-average number. Because they bought out this free agent year early, the Indians reduced their free agent commitment to a one-year, $10 million contract.
To understand the market for players comparable to Asdrubal, consider Omar Infante, a second-baseman with below-average offense but substantially better defense – on the aggregate, Infante has been an average player. This past offseason, Infante signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the Royals taking him from his age 32 to age 35 seasons.
Consider also Jhonny Peralta. Peralta’s numbers, on offense and (surprisingly) defense, have been much better than Cabrera’s and, while variable, still stoically above-average. However, Peralta was suspended for fifty games in 2013 for PED use. Despite this PED use, this past offseason, Peralta signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals, running from his age 31 to age 34 seasons.
Peralta and Infante’s contracts are bellwethers of the size of commitment that must be made to secure free agents who are either average or, in Peralta’s case, above-average but also high-risk due to his PED usage. Each of these players was over thirty entering free agency, and their average contract was four years, $40 million – $10 million per year.
Additionally, there’s reason to believe that each player’s average annual value was deflated by the total years added – earlier on Tuesday, Boston signed Stephen Drew for $10 million for the remainder of 2014, in which the 2-3 WAR, or average-to-above-average, player will be playing his age 30 season.
The effect of Asdrubal’s own contract extension was that, after a down year, Cleveland was forced to pay Asdrubal Cabrera, a player who, even including a poor 2013, has been average-to-above-average over the course of his career, a total of $10 million over one year. Unlike Peralta or Infante, however, Cabrera enters the 2014 season going into his age 28 season.
In other words, the Indians signed a younger player whose performance midpoint of Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta to a one-year contract at the annual rate that Infante and Peralta got, and substantially less than the rate that Stephen Drew received (by the time Drew plays his first game, Asdrubal will have already accumulated 1.2 FanGraphs WAR). The player is less risky than either Infante or Peralta due to age, has a substantially higher ceiling than Drew due to playing time, and the contract, because of its short duration, is also less risky than the Peralta and Infante signings that were regarded as, at least, justifiable moves.
As a result of a contract extension that the Indians got the raw end of, they ended up with an average-to-above-average, low-risk player at free agent prices for a low-risk contract. The Asdrubal Cabrera contract extension was a failure in execution, but the outcome of this failure proves the effectiveness of the method.
To be entirely clear: Asdrubal Cabrera’s scenario was not a worst-case scenario. Those who recall the Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore contracts will have no difficulty recalling the dead money at the end of those deals. Those contracts are the worst-case scenarios. Yet the dead money in Sizemore’s contract, approximately $16 million over three years, was insubstantial relative to payroll size, and the Hafner contract was criticized from the very outset for paying substantial sums of money to a 32-year-old dedicated DH. Those two extensions are the worst case scenarios, and even these worst-case scenarios had mitigating factors: one involved a relatively small deadweight loss of payroll, whereas the other was lampooned from its inception for being a poor move.
What the Asdrubal Cabrera contract does represent is a contract that went poorly – but not catastrophically – relative to the scope of all possible trajectories for a contract extension. A relatively poor trajectory gave the 2014 Cleveland Indians a lower risk player and contract than exist on the open market at comparable open-market costs. A relatively good trajectory, like Carlos Santana’s, has given Cleveland (the last six weeks aside) a very good hitter for $21 million over five years.
This range of trajectories is broad, certainly, but Asdrubal Cabrera’s contract extension shows that only the very worst are a net negative for the team. The success of the philosophy should be very encouraging when one recalls the Gomes, Brantley, and Kipnis deals, deals which, the team hopes, will carry Cleveland even after Asdrubal has taken a cab out of town.