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Tampa Bay Rays: What Will Asdrubal Cabrera Get in Free Agency?

By Robbie Knopf
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For a few weeks now, we have been hearing that Asdrubal Cabrera is likely to leave the Tampa Bay Rays as a free agent. No one can really be surprised by that outcome. Cabrera signed with the Rays on a one-year, $7.5 million hoping to reestablish his value, and that’s exactly what he did. He hit to a .265/.315/.430 line with 28 doubles, 15 homers, and 58 RBI, delivering a 105 OPS+, his best since 2012. From June 18th to the end of the year, he hit to a ridiculous .317/.357/.525 line, and he even improved his defense from everything that we heard.

Now the following question has come up: should the Rays give Cabrera a qualifying offer? Were they to do so, the Rays would be taking the risk that Cabrera would accept the offer and become a player on a one-year, $15.8 million contract that they would have to deal with. If he rejected it, however, as every player offered one under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has done so far, the Rays would receive a supplemental first round draft pick if he signed with another team before the 2016 MLB Draft. It certainly seems worth asking whether the potential reward of a qualifying offer to Cabrera outweighs the risk.

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On the other hand, two important counterpoints surround Cabrera’s defense and his comparable players. Kevin Cash was praising his work in the field the entire season, but the defensive metrics weren’t buying much of his improvement. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera was still 7 runs below-average, better than his -17 and -10 DRS per full season marks in 2013 and 2014 but still worse than his -4 per-year mark for his career. Ultimate Zone Rating, meanwhile, saw nothing at all different as his -10.4 UZR/150 was almost identical to his -10.5 mark from 2014 and his -10.6 mark for his career.

Defense certainly plays a major factor as we look at Cabrera’s overall value in 2015 and recent years compared to similar free agents. To clarify, year of contract and age are both in the first year of each player’s new deal, bWAR is Baseball-Reference WAR, fWAR is Fangraphs WAR, and “AVG last 3 yrs” is average from the previous three seasons.

Cabrera’s similar players are five fellow shortstops along with second baseman Omar Infante. The average deal that they received was worth three years and $28.23 million, although those numbers go up to 3.2 years and $30.06 million if we add in Jimmy Rollins‘ easy-to-attain vesting option for 2015 that made his contract into a four-year, $44 million contract. However, in comparison to these players, Asdrubal Cabrera does not look very good.

In terms of average WAR from the last three seasons before their contracts were signed, Cabrera ranks dead last in terms of both bWAR and fWAR. His last year before free agency wasn’t too great either as he was only sixth out of seven in terms of bWAR and fifth in terms of fWAR. Cabrera has never been a great defender and the second half of this season was the first time he had starred at the plate since 2012. How can 312 great plate appearances outweigh the 1417 mediocre ones that came before it?

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Cabrera’s one big advantage is his age–he won’t turn turn 30 until November, making him five months younger than the closest player. You also have to like the fact that his injury history is much better than Jed Lowrie and Stephen Drew, although he went on the DL with a hamstring strain in 2015 and also missed some time due to a knee injury. Finally, this seems like a good offseason to be a free agent shortstop. Unless someone believes that Ben Zobrist can still be a starter at short (defensive metrics suggest that he can’t), Cabrera is the second-best shortstop available, trailing only Ian Desmond (who, as an added bonus for Cabrera, had a rough walk year).

However, age and health won’t cause teams to be too forgiving about Cabrera’s performance and just look at the 2014 offseason to see how being the second-best shortstop on the market doesn’t guarantee much. Drew went unsigned until June even after making up for a few mediocre seasons with a spectacular 2013. As we know, the teams that were wary of Drew look smart now, and Cabrera may be unlikely to fall apart to the same extent. On the other hand, he doesn’t nearly have Drew’s upside and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him be a below-average starting shortstop moving forward.

We can say with certainty that Cabrera will not come remotely close to matching Jhonny Peralta‘s. His best-case scenario may be something like Jimmy Rollins’ three-year, $33 million deal without the vesting option. Realistically, though, we are talking about a player that really isn’t better than Jed Lowrie and is no guarantee to match his deal. Based on this, we would expect him to get a three-year deal worth between $20 million and $25 million. Appropriately, the average of the annual values of those two deals is the $7.5 million that Cabrera earned in 2015.

Maybe Cabrera would go for a two-year deal worth around $16.5 million or a four-year deal worth around $28 million depending on how his market shapes up. Obviously there’s some variability here. However, from all the information we have, it certainly appears that he will end up with a deal of three to four years worth between $6.5 and $8.7 million per season. 

Overall, though, unless there is a drastic difference between the best publicly available information and how teams evaluate Cabrera, it makes absolutely no sense for the Rays to give him a qualifying offer. It would be a no-brainer for him to accept it given that he would need to get only a two-year, $9.2 million contract afterwards to end up at the $25 million figure above and would have a real chance at getting more than that and approach Infante’s four-year deal. He would have no reason to deal with the risk that comes with being attached to draft pick compensation.

It only takes one interested team to make a qualifying offer worthwhile, with the Colorado Rockies’ Michael Cuddyer decision immediately coming to mind. He was about to accept the qualifying offer when the New York Mets surprisingly offered to sign him for more. The Rays will be gathering as much information as they can in the coming weeks, and maybe they learned something in trade discussions in August and September. Maybe there is one team that is so enamored with Cabrera that they would give up a first round pick to sign him. Otherwise, though, the Rays will thank him for his strong 2015 and say goodbye while receiving nothing in return.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Asdrubal Cabrera in the coming weeks. Would you give him a qualifying offer? Do you think that the Rays should be more interesting in re-signing him like it sounds like they are? There will plenty to discuss regarding Cabrera, the internal options to replace him at shortstop, and trade candidates as this offseason progresses.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: Appreciating Another Competitive Season

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