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Why Would the Rays Sign Asdrubal Cabrera and Deal Ben Zobrist?

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Even though today is the 11th day since his signing with the team was first reported, Asdrubal Cabrera is still not officially a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. We do have some new information, though: Cabrera will make $7.5 million in 2015, as reported by Jon Heyman. As Heyman went on to point out, Cabrera’s salary will be the same next season as his teammate, at least for the moment, Ben Zobrist.

The identical salaries of Zobrist and Cabrera appear to be the latest reminder that Cabrera’s signing will likely push Zobrist out the door. If a trade does truly come together, we can say that the Rays signed Cabrera so they could get impressive prospects for Zobrist without giving their 2015 hopes all that much of a hit. However, are we really going to take that as a satisfying answer?

It is obvious that Ben Zobrist is a better player than Asdrubal Cabrera. He is more productive at the plate and in the field, and his versatility adds an additional dimension to his value. If the Rays were going to trade Zobrist, why should they even pretend that Cabrera is a suitable replacement?

If the Rays were going to trade Ben Zobrist, we would think that they would then go with Nick Franklin as their starting second baseman. Franklin is the former top prospect who the Rays acquired in the David Price trade, and Zobrist’s departure would be the perfect opportunity to give him a second chance in the big leagues.

The fact that the Rays are not giving Franklin the starting job, however, could be indicative of a few different things. The first is that they don’t believe Franklin is ready and will start him at Triple-A to begin the year. Especially if a Zobrist trade hurts the Rays’ 2015 hopes, they have every reason to ensure Franklin is completely prepared for the majors before calling him up for good.

In addition, we can also say that the Rays see Cabrera as a breakout candidate. We have explained why before and maybe the Rays truly believe that Cabrera can deliver a major uptick in his performance next year. Aside from that, we can always head back to the classic explanation for most of the Rays’ moves, their constant juggle between contending now and building for the future.

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Trading away Zobrist would surely reduce the Rays’ chances of winning next season, but that isn’t their overarching focus. The Rays see a chance to receive a top prospect and more for their super-utility man, and all they are losing is a few wins from a team faces an uphill battle to contend anyway. What are the odds that losing Zobrist will make the difference between the Rays making the playoffs or missing out?

Let me make it clear that I’m not entirely convinced by the argument in that last paragraph. To strengthen it, though, we can talk about the Rays hedging their risk. Signing Cabrera elucidates the fact that the Rays have no qualms paying Zobrist’s $7.5 million salary for next season–the only reason to deal him would be for what they could get in return.

Given that the $7.5 million isn’t so meaningful, having Cabrera around allows the Rays to make up at least some of the difference between Zobrist and Cabrera for essentially nothing. If we presume that the Rays will only trade Zobrist if they receive prospects that will give them more expected value in the future than Zobrist was going to provide this season, the Rays’ only real long-term cost of signing Cabrera while dealing Zobrist is the at-bats that Cabrera will take away from their prospects.

However, Asdrubal Cabrera does not block Nick Franklin. A trade of Zobrist would open up at-bats in the outfield, and Franklin could be the Rays’ starting left fielder (at least against right-handed pitching) while seeing time at other positions in a backup role. While Franklin isn’t yet comfortable playing everywhere like Zobrist, he did get experience in the outfield last year and should be fine moving around with more time.

Since we’re talking about the outfield now and not just second base, we also need to mention Steven Souza. The Rays must regard him very highly considering that they effectively chose him over Wil Myers, and a deal of Zobrist create a more obvious avenue for Souza to make their Opening Day roster. Even if the Rays decide to keep him at Triple-A to work on his pitch recognition, playing time will be available whenever they deem him ready.

It looks unlikely, even if Zobrist departs, that both Nick Franklin and Steven Souza will wind up on the Rays’ 25-man roster to begin the year. However, does signing Cabrera really change that in any meaningful way? If the Rays want to give regular playing time to both Franklin and Souza, all they would need to do is trade, bench, or cut David DeJesus when both are ready. That is far from a crazy proposition.

Also, if both Franklin and Souza began the year at Triple-A, the Rays would have time to evaluate a few of their young major leaguers. They need to see whether Franklin and Souza will be core players of their team, but they also would like to know whether Kevin Kiermaier will be an option against left-handed pitching and whether Brandon Guyer will hit righties. That would mean even more opportunities for young players, and brings up a comparison with a team from three seasons ago.

Do you remember the 2012 AL West Champion Oakland Athletics? The previous offseason, that team had traded Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey and also let Josh Willingham and David DeJesus leave as free agents. Yet the A’s contended in 2012 as young players and reclamation projects stepped up. Signing Cabrera gives the Rays a better chance of pulling that off next season if a few things do fall their way.

If the Tampa Bay Rays do truly trade Ben Zobrist after signing Asdrubal Cabrera, they will first and foremost be building for the future. There is no way to say that going from Zobrist to Cabrera helps their probability of making the postseason in 2015 and the Rays are clearly acknowledging that their chances for next season are worse than they had been in previous years.

On the other hand, the Rays are giving their young players a chance to prove them wrong. They are leaving the window open just a crack and daring Nick Franklin, Steven Souza, Kevin Kiermaier, and Brandon Guyer to find a way to get through it. Maybe these moves are not how fans wanted the Rays to go about their offseason, but it sure beats them going into a full rebuild and kissing 2015 goodbye.

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