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Asdrubal Cabrera picked up his Professional Athlete of the Year trophy at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards last night, and I’m told the first half of his acceptance speech was much better than the second.
This begs the question: What is Cabrera worth, and how long will he be worth it?
Cabrera has asked for $5.2 million for 2012, while the Indians have countered with an offer of $3.75 million. Either way, Cabrera will get a sizable raise from the $2.025 million he made in 2011, and it’s much-deserved after the best season of his career. He hit 25 home runs, the most of any shortstop in franchise history, while also batting .273 with 92 RBIs in 151 games. He was a leader, both vocal and emotional, even as the injuries piled up and the Indians fell out of contention.
But Cabrera, as you well know, saw his own performance fade along with those hopes of an AL Central crown. Look at his month-by-month splits, from baseball-reference.com:
Split G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS April/March 26 26 123 107 17 28 4 1 5 17 2 0 9 19 .262 .333 .458 .791 May 26 26 114 106 18 35 7 2 5 19 5 0 5 15 .330 .372 .575 .947 June 27 27 118 111 17 33 10 0 3 11 5 1 6 22 .297 .339 .468 .807 July 25 25 105 94 10 25 4 0 4 14 1 2 8 22 .266 .333 .436 .770 August 27 27 125 109 16 26 4 0 4 17 3 1 12 25 .239 .320 .385 .705 Sept/Oct 20 20 82 77 9 18 3 0 4 14 1 1 4 16 .234 .280 .429 .709
What you see there is the root of all fears the Indians possess with regard to Cabrera. His physical conditioning has constantly come into question. And until he demonstrates the ability to sustain his performance over the course of a full season, it will remain a question.
Cabrera played through a ton of pain last year. After playing just 97 games in 2010 because of a fractured forearm, he appeared in 151 out of 162 in ’11. And he took his power productivity to new heights. His .460 slugging percentage was 66 points higher than what had been his career norm, coming in.
The leadership, the willingness to gut it out when his body is barking at him, the comfort level he’s displayed on the Major League stage literally from the day he arrived in 2007… those things aren’t going anywhere. You invest in that.
But the Indians have to understand that if they’re buying into Cabrera for the long-term right now, they’re buying high. He might never top the run-production he provided in 2011, and his defensive range (for what it’s worth, his UZR, as calculated by Fangraphs.com, has dropped each season at shortstop, all the way down to 11.8 points below average last year) doesn’t figure to improve, either.
And yet, because they clearly aren’t looking to trade him while his value is at its perceived peak (a half-baked idea I discussed at the time of the Winter Meetings), they have no choice but to try to extend him. Because if he matches his performance of 2011, his price tag increases exponentially, a year ahead of free agency (and we all know how well the Indians fare in that environment). And even if he doesn’t match those ’11 numbers, the organization is not exactly brimming with upper-level shortstop supply.
This organization’s top prospect (at short or elsewhere) is Francisco Lindor. He’s 19. So, too, are highly regarded shortstops Ronny Rodriguez and Tony Wolters (who might profile better as a second baseman, anyway). Even if those guys pan out and get to the Majors, it’s going to be at least a few years before they get there, let alone settle in. This year, the Tribe will have a light-hitting shortstop in Columbus in Juan Diaz and another in Akron in Casey Frawley. Their only other viable option for short at the Major League level is Jason Donald, and nobody is counting on him as an everyday player at that position.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the prospect pool at this position in the upper levels is basically barren. Cabrera is the be all and end all for the foreseeable future.
The Indians never showed much interest in a Cabrera extension in the past, largely because of his conditioning. But his dramatic improvement in ’11, combined with their dearth of options coming through the pipeline, have forced the issue.
Now that the issue is at hand, we can expect some sort of compromise on the arbitration issue for 2012 — $4.48M would be the midway point, and it certainly seems reasonable. Buying out Cabrera’s third and final arbitration year would probably take another $2M-$2.5M raise, so you’re looking at a salary somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.75 million for ’13. And then, to buy out one or two or three of Cabrera’s free-agent years (the only way such a deal would make any sense whatsoever for the Indians), J.J. Hardy’s recent extension with the Orioles (three years, $22.5M) seems a worthwhile comparison. That deal has an average annual value of $7.4M.
Add it all up, and you’d be looking at a three-year guarantee of about $18.6M, a four-year guarantee of about $26M and a five-year guarantee of about $33.4M. Perhaps the Indians could coerce Cabrera to make one or two of those club option years, but you get the idea.
Is Cabrera worth that type of commitment? Especially to a club recently burned by the Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner extensions? Well, frankly, none of us knows. The power Cabrera displayed last season could very well be a fluke, and the second-half slide could very well be a warning signal.
But knowing what little is on the immediate horizon and knowing how well the Indians fare in free agency, it might be time for them to invest in what they have.