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Will Asdrubal Cabrera’s Preference for One Position Hurt the Rays?

By Robbie Knopf
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The player who Asdrubal Cabrera is replacing, Ben Zobrist, possessed not just the talent but the willingness to play all over the field as necessary. Cabrera also has some versatility as he has logged over 200 major league games at both shortstop and second base, but he lacks the desire to see time in multiple spots. He communicated exactly that to Marc Topkin.

"Free agent signee Asdrubal Cabrera reported to camp Monday saying he is okay with playing either second base or shortstop based on whatever the Rays decide is best for the team.But he made it clear he would rather not shuffle between the two.“I would like to stay in one position,” Cabrera said. “I think it’s hard for anyone to play short or second; it’s not the same. You have to be ready for one of those two positions.”"

We can’t blame Cabrera for his preference. The Rays have become known for their positionally flexibility, but most players–especially two-time All-Stars like Cabrera–receive the opportunity to appear almost exclusively in one place. Cabrera will undoubtedly appear at both shortstop and second base before the year is through, but he deserves the chance to play only one of the two positions as much as possible.

However, will giving into Cabrera’s demands make the Rays a worse team? After all, Nick Franklin has shown signs of weakness against left-handed pitching and we have talked for a while about how the Rays would be best off with Cabrera at second base against righties but shortstop versus lefties. However, anchoring Cabrera at one position could lead the Rays to more creative uses of their other infielders.

The easiest way for the Rays to play Cabrera at one position would be to make him their starting shortstop. Then Nick Franklin and Logan Forsythe could platoon at second base (at least for the most part) and the Rays would need no other machinations. However, Franklin is almost surely better shortstop than Cabrera, so the Rays would rather put Cabrera at second base full-time instead. Could that still work?

The only catch regarding Asdrubal Cabrera becoming the Rays’ starting second baseman is that they would desperately need a righty-hitting backup infielder. That player could be non-roster invitee Jake Elmore, but the better fit for that spot is former number one overall pick Tim Beckham, who could spell Franklin at shortstop against left-handers.

There is no guarantee that Beckham is ready as he is coming off an injury-riddled year and delivered middling results at Triple-A. In addition, he actually hit righties much better than lefties in both 2012 and 2013–can he really be the lefty-mashing bench bat that the Rays are hoping for? On the other hand, Beckham is a talented enough player to deserve a chance and could break out in the role.

The other thing to consider is that having Beckham on the roster would mean that the Rays could carry neither David DeJesus nor Juan Francisco. DeJesus and Francisco would be much better hitters off the bench than Beckham and also provide needed depth in case of injury or poor performance among players like John Jaso, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steven Souza.

With that in mind, the Rays carrying Beckham would be a testament to two major factors. The first would be that they have faith in Beckham’s abilities and worthiness of a big league chance. Secondly, they would also be saying that the defensive upgrade from Cabrera to Franklin and Beckham at shortstop is worth more than the offense and depth provided by DeJesus and Francisco. There is no guarantee that the Rays believe in either of those two things.

Another consideration, though, is that carrying both Franklin and Beckham may give the Rays just as much depth as DeJesus or Francisco would provide. Other than the obvious–that Beckham could replace Franklin if he falters–having both players gives the Rays the flexibility to give many different players off-days against lefties.

Instead of having Beckham and Franklin in a true platoon, the Rays could have Beckham switch off replacing Franklin, James Loney, and Kevin Kiermaier. Franklin has better recent big league numbers against lefties than either player, and the Rays may consider it sensible to play him on at least on occasional basis against them.

Franklin also has experience in the outfield, so Beckham could play short while Franklin slides to left or right field. That could even become a more permanent arrangement in any of the scenarios in which DeJesus or Francisco would have helped the Rays. Interestingly enough, keeping Asdrubal Cabrera in one spot could give Nick Franklin the chance to shine at several positions.

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If Beckham didn’t make the Rays’ roster, the team could still hypothetically keep Cabrera at second base full-time. They would need to play Franklin quite a bit against left-handed pitching, but as discussed in the piece I linked to above, that isn’t as crazy as it may sound. It is also worth noting that Franklin may be far better defensively than the Rays’ non-Beckham alternatives. If the Rays did want to spell Franklin, though, they would still have a possibility in Logan Forsythe.

We can say for sure that Forsythe is more of a second and third baseman than a shortstop. However, considering Cabrera’s defensive collapse at short in recent years, can Forsythe really be so much worse? Forsythe has generated decent reviews in his (very) limited time at the position in the major leagues, and the Rays could help him further by picking their times to start him carefully.

The Rays could make the following rule: Nick Franklin will start for them at shortstop unless A) they are facing a left-handed pitcher AND B) either Jake Odorizzi or Drew Smyly is their own starting pitcher that game. Odorizzi and Smyly are both flyball-heavy pitchers who would mitigate the harm that Forsythe would do defensively at shortstop.

Such a rule might lead to Forsythe starting two games in a row and then not appearing again for three weeks. It certainly isn’t perfect. However, the Rays could also have Forsythe appear a little bit more or less depending on how valuable Franklin is at the plate and in the field, and Beckham could be called up at some point in the season anyway.

The Rays will also likely have a third starter behind whom Forsythe could appear. Alex Colome could win their fifth starter job and his minor league numbers suggest that he will have flyball tendencies as well. The Rays will then have a surer bet in terms of both performance and flyballs when Matt Moore returns from Tommy John Surgery in June. Thanks to them, it would be easier for the Rays to find more time for Forsythe and/or allow them to pick their spots to play him more carefully.

While playing Asdrubal Cabrera at second base versus right-handed pitching and shortstop versus lefties initially seemed like the Rays’ best solution, they may instead be better off with Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham, and Logan Forsythe moving around. Luckily for Cabrera, his teammates’ versatility should make his desire to stay put an easy thing for the Rays to fulfill.

Next: Tim Beckham Breaks Smyly's Windshield and Other Rays Notes

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