July 26, 2009

Should The Twins Trade For Orlando Cabrera?

Both local newspapers and multiple national outlets report that the Twins spent the weekend talking to the A's about acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera, with Buster Olney of ESPN.com noting that the two sides are "deep into talks and talking composition of a deal." Naturally no one from the front office was willing to comment on a possible trade, but Ron Gardenhire had no problem telling reporters that he wants the team to deal for a middle infielder and specifically likes Cabrera:

I like Cabrera, yes. I'm not allowed to talk about players, but yes I like Cabrera. It's a direct question. I can answer a direct question. I think he's a great player. [White Sox manager] Ozzie [Guillen] and he really butted heads. [Joe] Crede told us he was a great teammate, hard worker. These guys over here said fantastic things about him, played the game, played hard, the whole package.

It just can't continue with both guys in the middle struggling at the same time at this pace. We're not really getting much out of either one of those two. There's just too many outs. You're playing the game with less outs than you should be. You can't continue that. That's hard, really hard to do, and there are no answers. There's nowhere to go.

Twins second basemen have batted .186/.272/.234 in 410 plate appearances and their shortstops are at .238/.301/.328 in 405 trips to the plate, which combined gives the team an embarrassing, MLB-worst .212/.286/.281 line from the middle infield. Gardenhire's points about simply giving away too many outs are right on the money and something that I've been harping on in this space for most of the season, but unfortunately his unabashed praise of Cabrera is significantly less encouraging to hear.

There's perhaps some room for debate about whether or not Cabrera was ever, as Gardenhire puts it, "a great player." He certainly never fit my description of greatness, but as a two-time Gold Glove winner with 1,740 hits, nearly 200 stolen bases, and a .275 batting average over 13 seasons in the majors it's not shocking that Gardenhire is a big fan. However, even stretching your standards to give Cabrera the "great" label at one point in his career leaves him miles from that level now.

Cabrera will be 35 years old in three months and like the majority of mid-30s shortstops throughout the history of baseball his range has deteriorated. He was once a legitimately great defender and Cabrera managed to remain very good defensively into his 30s, but this season Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as 9.3 runs below average. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt at the age of 35 and assume that he simply had a bad first 96 games, Cabrera is unlikely to be better than average at this point.

Of course, average or slightly below average defense at shortstop is hardly a terrible thing if it comes along with strong offense, and Gardenhire would probably tell you that Cabrera is a really good hitter. After all, his batting average is .276, he rarely strikes out, he's on pace for a ninth straight season with 15-plus steals, and Cabrera no doubt "battles his tail off." In reality, he's hitting .276/.313/.366 this year after batting .281/.334/.371 last season and has a lifetime adjusted OPS+ of 86 where 100 is average.

2008/2009              AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Brendan Harris .264 .318 .386 .704
Orlando Cabrera .279 .327 .369 .695
Nick Punto .253 .333 .329 .662
Alexi Casilla .250 .309 .328 .637

Since the beginning of last year Cabrera has a solid-looking .279 batting average, but it's completely empty with 40 walks per 600 plate appearances and a puny Isolated Power of .090. He doesn't get on base or hit for any power, and at this point in their respective careers Cabrera is essentially Brendan Harris, offering sub par defense and a .700 OPS. Harris and Cabrera have both been better than Nick Punto offensively, but that's obviously not saying much and the difference is just 30-40 points of OPS.

Bringing in Cabrera at shortstop and moving Punto to second base while using Harris primarily at third base and sending Alexi Casilla back to Rochester would probably make the Twins slightly better and would definitely make Gardenhire think that the Twins were significantly better. However, unless the A's are willing to basically give Cabrera away the cost likely doesn't justify such a small upgrade and still leaves the Twins with a horrible middle infield for the final two months of the season.

It's nice to hear that the Twins are actually attempting to upgrade the awful middle infield that's dragged them down all season and because of how bad they've been plenty of potential upgrades are (or were) rumored to be available as Friday's trading deadline nears, but Cabrera is not someone who's likely to make a major difference down the stretch and that Gardenhire and/or the Twins' front office believes he'd be a big upgrade perhaps explains why the Twins are in this mess to begin with.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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