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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Not-So-Dumb? Revisiting The Cabrera Deal Two Years Hence

Wednesday marked the second anniversary of the Orlando Cabrera signing, and it seems useful, now that the 2006 season is only a memory, to review it. Recall that I was deeply opposed to that deal at the time it went down, mainly on the grounds that David Eckstein could have been kept around for far less while giving roughly equivalent defense, and with arguably better offense. The only serious objections were to Eckstein's health going forward, and to his declining offense. (I will return to Eckstein in a bit.)

Cabrera's 2005 was, in hindsight, much better than it looked at the time, which was abjectly terrible. After signing a $32M/4 year deal that appeared simply outrageous by the standards of that offseason (but quite modest in the current market), criticism of any failures was inevitable. He started out hitting .258 in April, and spiraled down to a .216 May; with sub-.300 OBPs in both months, he was an automatic out at the plate. He pulled out of it with a tepid June (.264) and a solid July (.280), all the while OPSing in the mid .600's or thereabouts.

He ended his 2005 with a 12.5 VORP, good for 10th best in the league, trailing such lightweight hitters as the Blue Jays' Russ Adams, who found himself sent down to AAA the next year for his weak performance, and the Red Sox' Edgar Rentaria, whose .276/.335/.385 line that year caused the Red Sox to jettison him in favor of Alex Gonzalez. Defensively, Cabrera was almost exactly league average a measured by Rate2 (101), but well belowe average (-6.67 RAA) by David Pinto's PMR.

All of this pointed to a huge mistake contract by the Angels. With his age 31 season looming, the question became whether his 2005 was just a down year possibly amplified by changing divisions, or an age-related decline. Cabrera answered with his strongest season since 2003, with a .282/.335/.404 line good for a 29.5 VORP, placing him sixth in the league and far ahead of the plummeting Alex Gonzalez (3.2 VORP). Once more, his glove was absolutely average by Rate2 (100), while PMR had him pegged just a hair above.

So far, it looks like my original projection of Eckstein being a cheaper, equally effective alternative has been mostly right, with one significant exception. Cabrera has so far put together 42 VORP over two seasons; of the other options I identified at the time, David Eckstein has amassed 40.9 VORP, slightly more, but at the cost of considerably more DL time; Eckstein played only 123 games this year, three more than his injury season of 2003. His glove played about the same as Cabrera's (both about league average both years). The big difference, of course, is that with Eckstein, you're talking about inserting Izturis into shortstop for about 40 games, and taking whatever offensive hit that represents. Meantime, Eckstein was still arbitration eligible, and even if he wasn't, he ended up costing only $2.3M a year to the Cards, while Cabrera cost $8M. While Cabrera's far from a bust, especially relative to today's absurd contracts, it's still awfully questionable.

I think it's also important to think of the context of team composition. The Angels were in the midst of developing a young pitching staff before the 2005 season, and needed to shore up an infield defense that hadn't been so great in 2004, so that the pitchers could relax a bit and throw strikes. There isn't a stat in the world that will convince me Eckstein's a better shortstop than Cabrera; and I think he definitely deserves some credit for the largely unpredicted (cough) leaps forward the entire rotation made in 2005.

And even though everyone was weirdly error-prone last year (including him), I think that was largely an aberration, and that it makes sense during a time of intense transition & development of young players (in the process going from a defensive team to a much more offensive team), to have some bedrock continuity at shortstop, as we break in still more young pitchers.

And finally, even though I think Cabrera will play more like 2005 in 2007-08, and even though I would make trading him now one of my top priorities, I've always said that the advantage of choosing him over Eck would occur by the third year of the deal, when Eck's little body will have been reduced to tatters, and when the National League finally learns his limited bag of offensive tricks.
I never said Eckstein was better than Cabrera, only that he was about as good. I realize that you can't have the platonic ideal of an infinitely cheap team while contending — the Devil Rays are proof enough of that — but Cabrera strikes me as awfully spendy for what he brings to the table, current market corrections included. I will give you this, though: you're probably right about years three and four of the deal with Eckstein's questionable durability.
I also wouldn't discount the league catching up to Eckstein aspect of things. I think there's a good chance that had Eckstein remained with the Angels, his 2005 and 2006 seasons would have been a lot more like his 2004 season; landing in AAAA, where he wasn't really known, allowed him to do many of the things he did for the Halos in 2002 and 2003.

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