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How the Rays signing of Asdrubal Cabrera might make sense

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The Rays have reportedly signed the best free agent middle infielder available this off-season, and there is not a lot of immediate optimism for the deal.

Any first reaction would be that Asdrubal Cabrera on a one year deal is replacing either Yunel Escobar or Ben Zobrist in the starting line up for 2015, but based on recent performance that seems to be a bad baseball move.

Player 13-14 wRC+ 13-14 DRS 13-14 WAR 2015 Salary
Ben Zobrist 117 15 11.1 $7.5 million
Yunel Escobar 97 -20 4.1 $5 million
Asdrubal Cabrera 96 -33 2.2 $8 million

Isolating just 2013 and 2014 isn't ideal for an honest comparison between these three players. Both years were excellent for Ben Zobrist, 2014 was a down year for Escobar, and both seasons were poor for Cabrera, after two years as an All-Star. It's not a perfect comparison, positionally or logically. So let's rewind.

What exactly does Cabrera do for the Rays?

He's a 29-year old shortstop with a league average bat, who hit better three years ago. That's good. But Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has him as around ten runs below average as a shortstop per season, and recently, Tom Tango's Fan Scouting Report agrees. That's bad. Steamer projects him to be worth about 1 and a half wins. That would make him fair value at his alleged $8 million price. But who cares about fair value?

Other Steamer projections on the Rays:
Ben Zobrist: 3.8 fWAR
Yunel Escobar: 1.7 fWAR
Nick Franklin: 1.1 fWAR (in only half a season of projected plate appearances)

So why pay fair value when you already have a better player, a similar-but-cheaper player, and a similar-cheaper-younger player?

Maybe Zobrist is about to be traded. If so, Silverman has paid good money to make the team worse, but what if it's Yunel Escobar who is about to be traded?

Comparing Escobar and Cabrera

Sending off Yunel Escobar to a team in need at shortstop is a possibility, thanks to Escobar's low salary and previous levels of production, and a one year deal for Cabrera allows the Rays to sort things out until some of the gaggle of shortstop prospects find their way to show.

Combine better batting with the potential for the Rays to score a respectable return in a trade of Escobar, and the increased cost of Cabrera may be worthwhile on a one year deal.

Helping Cabrera's case would be a .277 BABIP that belied his performance over the last two seasons. Steamer projects Cabrera to a 100 wRC+ in 2015, which is a shade ahead of Escobar with higher expectations for more power -- possibly twice the home run tally.

On the other side of the ball, Cabrera is not a clear upgrade at defense, but there might be more to the story for both players. Lost in the defensive metrics noted in the table above is an incredible OOZ score for Escobar, whose range gives him an average score on defense of 3.25 on Fangraphs, which is still above average for a short stop. Advantage Escobar.

However, Cabrera is not incapable of playing out of zone, and it's worth asking whether there's more to the story. The Rays have sophisticated defensive metrics and data to back their decisions, and the opinions of Kevin Cash who coached on the Indians staff while Cabrera manned the 6-hole.

Those are two pieces to the equation we don't have in front of us.

On Defensive Alignment

We don't know exactly where Cabrera will play. As a poor defensive shortstop, it may make sense to move him to second base, which is an easier position, as the Nationals tried last season after a mid-season acquisition, but that doesn't mean he'll be a good -- or even average -- for a second baseman. Consider the defensive spectrum.

Second and third base are about five runs less difficult than shortstop. That means that when a player moves, he is expected to either gain or lose that many runs in his defensive metrics. Therefore, Zobrist, who has been around 10 runs better than average at second base, can slide over to shortstop and be at least average there (probably better). But Cabrera has been around 10 runs worse than average at shortstop. Slide him to second and give him another five runs, and he'd still project as a below average second baseman. Where's the value in that?

There are other positions Cabrera might play. He may serve as the everyday designated hitter, where his league-average bat is unexciting but not the worst thing the Rays have ever put there. From that position, he can back up the entire outfield, and give the Rays some insurance for Yunel Escobar if he cannot rebound from his abrupt defensive decline last season.

There's some value in mitigating risk like that, but there's not a whole lot of reward. So again, we must defer to the Rays' planned moves for the future, their proprietary defensive

On the manager's perspective

When Kevin Cash went to the Indians organization, he told his new team to acquire Yan Gomes, a player he had worked with in Toronto who had spent the majority of his time as a marginal bat at first base. Cash believed Gomes belonged behind the plate, and he was right.

The transition went smoothly, and Gomes produced at an all-star level. Maybe I know nothing. Maybe Cash is about to pull another Yan Gomes out of his hat. Maybe Asdrubal Cabrera has soft hands and a secret passion for pitch framing, and he's poised for a breakout season in a way none of us will see coming.

Kevin Cash knows Asdubal Cabrera, and he clearly thinks he's worth paying, so there's hope that the Rays know what they're doing, but for the first time in years, you can justifiably be concerned about the Rays process. They're leaning on scouting and data we Rays fans can't observe, which is unnerving.

Conclusion

There's a way to like this deal. If the Rays are actually about to pay Asdrubal Cabrera $8 million for one year of play, that means that they are -- despite the constant cries of "salary dump" from Rays fans -- serious about winning. That's good news. It's not money they need to spend, so this is a conscious decision to go make the team better.

But that brings us to everything there is to dislike about the signing. Spending money doesn't win you baseball games, especially when the amounts are relatively small. Spending money wisely is what wins baseball games, and it's something the Rays have excelled at in the Andrew Friedman years.

It's a new era under Matt Silverman, and this is a new gamble for the Rays.

Asdrubal Cabrera is a high-profile signing for Tampa Bay, and one that is either predicated on information we fans don't have access to or relies on moves yet to be made. Silverman has shown a willingness to be aggressive in making this the team he'd like to field, and Cabrera could be a hallmark signing for the new GM -- or a hallmark failure.

For now we wait and see.