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Asdrubal Cabrera and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Focus on Defense

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Dan Feigenbaum, my middle school gym teacher, put a sign behind the basket in our gym that read “If you score, you may win. If they never score, you will never lose. Defense wins championships.” Tampa Bay Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman did not attend Andries Hudde Junior High, but his offseason moves show that he is a big believer in defense.

Asdrubal Cabrera‘s offense has fallen off in a big way from his All-Star years in 2011 and 2012. His batting average has actually gone down the last five years, and the same is true for his slugging percentage in the last three seasons. Even though he’s only 29 years old, his 25 home runs in 2011 looks more like a fluke than anything else after he has averaged 15 homers the last three years. Cabrera is still an average offensive middle infielder, but he may no longer be anything more.

Since the Rays are paying Cabrera $8 million for next season, a large sum by their standards, clearly they are expecting big things from him not just at the plate but in the field. That may seem a little strange given that Cabrera has been considered a poor defensively shortstop for at least the last two or three years, but luckily for the Rays, they won’t need to play Cabrera at shortstop.

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When Asdrubal Cabrera took the field for the Washington Nationals at second base, he had not played the position since 2009. Even so, his results were encouraging. Cabrera’s UZR/150 improved from -10.5 during his time at shortstop in 2014 to -5.3 at second base, and while we know to be wary of small sample sizes, there is further reason to believe that Cabrera’s defense can be much better at the keystone. Cabrera was a solid defender at second base when he had played there previously, managing a -2.5 UZR/150 in 1773.2 innings, and we also know intuitively that second base is an easier position to play than shortstop.

Many of the Tampa Bay Rays’ offseason moves make sense if we believe their overall goal is to improve the defense. They traded their two worst defensive outfielders, Matt Joyce and Wil Myers. Even Sean Rodriguez received poor grades in the outfield, where he would have been needed quite a bit if the Rays had kept him. They also acquired Steven Souza, who was famous for making an incredible defensive play to preserve Jordan Zimmerman‘s no-hitter and looks to be a much better right fielder than Myers.

Amid all the turnover in the Rays’ outfield, we have to remember that the players they retained–Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Guyer, and David DeJesus–will compose one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. Trade rumors are swirling around Ben Zobrist (and acquiring Cabrera will fuel more rumors about both him and Yunel Escobar), but if Cabrera performs as expected at second base, the Rays could also end up with a strong defensive infield no matter who gets traded.

The Tampa Bay Rays enter 2015 with perhaps the best young starting staff in baseball. How much easier will it be for Rays starters and relievers when they have the confidence that a great defense is behind them? The Rays may struggle to put runs on the board next season, but if they don’t allow many runs, then it will not be as much of a challenge to win games. There may be a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 contests at Tropicana Field in 2015, but the Rays have the pitching and the defense to contend nonetheless.

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