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Aug 1, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera (3) fields a ground ball in the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluating the Asdrubal Cabrera Trade

A wise man recently said the Nationals should trade for a replacement for Danny Espinosa at second. Not long after, the Nationals completed a trade to acquire Asdrubal Cabrera for Zach Walters and some cash. It seemed the folks in the front office were listening to good counsel.

I’m kidding, of course. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but “wise” has never been at the top of that list.

Obviously, this isn’t a blockbuster deal on par with some of Thursday’s other dealings. No one would mistake the Cabrera/Walters swap for the Cespedes for Lester and Gomes deal. That doesn’t mean, though, that the deal is a failure. The question that must be asked here, as in any type of acquisition, is, “Does adding this piece make the team better?”

It’s hard to make any sort of case that this isn’t an offensive improvement. In spite of the fact that Cabrera’s numbers are below his career averages, he’s still a better option than Espinosa. His OPS of .692 tops Espinosa’s .640, and Cabrera’s OPS+ of 95 sits nearly 20 points higher than Espinosa’s of 77.

Cabrera shows more potential to produce runs, too. He’s hit nine homers to Espinosa’s six, and driven in 40 runs to Espinosa’s 22. But the most telling stat at the plate could be the strikeout numbers. Asdrubal Cabrera has struck out 79 times in 416 at bats, or roughly 18.9% of the time. Espinosa’s strikeout percentage is a whopping 32.9%.

Defensively, it’s a little harder to compare. Cabrera has spent most of his career at shortstop. The difference between the two middle infield positions isn’t as different as, say, moving from catcher to right field, but each position has its own intricacies. Evaluating the impact becomes more tedious.

In all honesty, it’s hard to say either Espinosa or Cabrera is vastly superior to the other. Using stats from their most played position (shortstop for Cabrera; second for Espinosa) their range runs for this season are within half a point of each other, with Espinosa holding a slight edge. In revised zone rating, Cabrera has a modest advantage (.794 to .791). If anything, the difference is negligible.

F.P. Santangelo is fond of droning on about how great Espinosa is, constantly lauding him by remarking that he’s “as good a second baseman” as anyone who’s ever played the position. The numbers, however, don’t bear that out. Espinosa is slightly above average at best, no more than that. Cabrera may not be what he once was, but it’s hard to say that he’s a huge downgrade from the Nationals current second baseman.

Based on these arguments, it seems pretty clear that the acquisition of Cabrera improves the team. But what about the cost? After all, the Nationals sacrificed one of their young players for a guy who’s basically a rental, since Cabrera’s contract is up at the end of this season.

The argument here rests less on Espinosa and more on the potential of Zach Walters. At only 24 years of age, Walters is still improving, and he could have been the future for the Nationals at second base for years to come.

But all of that is potential, and the future. I’ve said this before and I stand behind it: the Nationals are in “win now” mode. In baseball, just as with any other sport, the windows of opportunity are small and often unpredictable. When a chance presents itself to chase a title, it has to be seized, because you never know when it will come again.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the future as well, but, as they say, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Who knows what next year will bring? The NL East looks to be a division on the rise. The Braves still stand to be the bane of Washington’s existence; Miami is quickly transforming into a competitive force; and even the Mets are on the verge of being a nuisance. The Nationals must focus on winning this season; next year can’t be won until next year.

There’s also the issue of know-how. Walters has been in the league less than two seasons, whereas Cabrera boasts at least some playoff experience. That will count for something come October. Besides, Matt Williams has not shown the confidence to make Walters an everyday player; he’s chosen to rely on Espinosa for that. Which means all those arguments for Walters don’t really apply here.

So, given all of this information, how does this trade shake out? Are the Nationals better, or did they throw away too much?

If you asked me, I’d have to say the end result is positive. It’s not a blockbuster deal, but the addition of Asdrubal Cabrera, who brings more offense and some playoff experience, could help the Nats make a playoff push. As for the loss of Walters, the team can’t waste time worrying about that. After all, they have to concern themselves with this year now and deal with next year when they come to it.

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