The Nationals signed former Oriole Daniel Cabrera to a one-year deal. Terms weren't disclosed, but assuming we're spending something in the ballpark of $3 million, this move makes a lot of sense for the Nationals (in fact, he signed for $2.6 million).
Many of you, especially the sometime-Oriole fans among you, are groaning at the signing. In Baltimore, his name has become almost synonymous with the adjectives "frustrating," "maddening," and "disappointing." Much of that criticism is not really fair though. Cabrera, like Jason Bergmann or Austin Kearns (before he totally cratered last year), is the kind of guy fans hate because of what he isn't instead of just appreciating what he is.
Of course, there's a reason fans were expecting more. Cabrera came up in 2004 as a big, highly touted, 23-year-old fireballer. Throwing 96-97 miles per hour, he threw 147.3 innings that season, was second on the team with 12 wins, and finished third in the rookie of the year voting. Expectations exploded with comparisons to the likes of J.R. Richard and Randy Johnson.
Politely stated, those comparisons were premature, which was obvious to anyone looking past meaningless stats like wins and ROY voting. Cabrera snuck by that year with an awful 5.42 BB/9 rate, a lucky 7.1% HR/FB rate and an unsustainably low .278 BABIP. His tRA* of 6.06 (a stat scaled to traditional ERA based on events within a pitcher's control) told a more accurate tale about his performance that rookie season.
Ever since then, it's become an annual ritual for the media to build up expectations of a "major breakout" for Cabrera in the spring, and then pile on him when it doesn't happen. You hear it all the time: if he can just get his walks down, he'll be a solid #2. Well, if worms had hips they'd wear six-shooters and shoot birds out of the trees.
So let's forget about his "potential" and focus on what he is. Cabrera basically throws two pitches: a fastball and a slider. He throws a change-up too, but so rarely that it barely merits a mention. There aren't very many starting pitchers in the league with that repertoire (Oliver Perez is the only other one I can think of off the top of my head), and it's easy for guys like this to look dominant one day and terrible the next. That's because if the command is there, the fastball-slider combination is pretty deadly--both pitches come in hard with similar motion, but the slider dives out of the zone at the last second. If the pitcher can throw strikes down in the zone consistently enough to keep the hitters honest, he can get a ton of strikeouts on sliders buried down and away to righties. But if the fastball command isn't there, the hitter can just lay off the slider and sit on the fastball up in the zone and go bang-zoom.
At his best, that slider-fastball combo gave Cabrera some pretty knock-out stuff, with K/9 rates just a hair below 10 in 2006. But those numbers have declined precipitously (more on that later).
What has never left him is his ability to generate groundballs. His career groundball rate is 47.1%, and the last two years he's been even better at 49.5% and 48.0%, pretty fantastic rates by any measure. Moreover, the Orioles have had some pretty bad defenders behind him (Mora, Tejada, Millar), but with a slick-fielding infield (Zimm, Gonzalez, Hernandez, and Tex or Nick would qualify), he could really benefit.
And of course he's been a generous consumer of innings. At 6'7" and 270 pounds, he has the profile of a durable workhorse. With 380 innings in two years behind him he's established himself a just that.
Command has always been D-Cab's Achilles' heel. Cabrera has ended a season of pro ball with fewer than 4 walks per 9 exactly once--in his second tour through the rookie leagues at age 21 in 2002. His year-to-year BB/9 rates since coming up to the big leagues are 5.42, 4.85, 6.32, 4.76, and 4.50. If he could improve his command... no, stop right there. It's not going to happen. Just accept that this guy is going to put runners on a lot.
The thing to worry about is that his strikeout rate and velocity have fallen precipitously. His K/9 rates have been 4.63, 8.76, 9.55, 7.31, and finally 4.75 last year. According to the pitch f/x data on his Fangraphs player page, his the velocity on his fastball has fallen from 96.2 in 2005 to 92.6 last year. That hardly makes him a soft-tosser, but the fact of the matter is that he's not missing bats at anywhere near the rate he needs to.
Looking at Cabrera's plate discipline numbers, you can see just how much more hittable he became last year. Hitters were laying off balls out of the zone more and more--swinging just 18.9% of the time, compared to 21-22% in his best years. When they are swinging at balls out of the zone, they're making way more contact (69.5% in '08, up from 35.0% and48.2% in '05 and '06). Overall, hitters made contact on 87.6% of their swings in '08, up from 75.6% in '06.
So what's going on? It's possible that he's taking some heat off in an effort to improve his command. If that's the case, he should stop doing that, because he's not getting nearly enough benefit in the walk rates to compensate for what he's losing in hittability. It's also possible that 840 major league innings by age 28 have taken a toll and that he's lost velocity for good or that he's hurt. He complained of elbow soreness late in the season and was shut down September 18. He had two MRIs and the Orioles insist that he had a simple strain that required a little rest and no more. But it's a risk, for sure.
Bottom line, I think it's a reasonably safe bet that Cabrera can raise is strikeout numbers enough so that with the move to the NL and what hopefully will be a better defense behind him (that means no Guzman-Belliard MI on the days Cabrera starts) post an ERA under 5 for 170-180 innings or more. Eric Seidman crunches the numbers and figures that if he can post a 4.95 FIP for 170 innings that he'll be worth a hair less than one win over replacement, which would be worth about $3-3.5 mil. If we get that we should just applaud and be happy. Again, forget the talk of D-Cab's upside. Just look for him to replace Tim Redding.
But wait, you say, why should we be happy with that? A 4.95 ERA stinks! Two reasons: first, because we're dangerously close to looking at Tyler Clippard and Mike O'Connor back in the rotation if a couple injuries hit. Those guys will make you long for replacement level. Second, because we need veterans who can take the pressure off the young pitchers we're going to be (hopefully) breaking in this year. I don't want Manny having to regularly pitch Jordan Zimmermann or Collin Balester or Steven Strasburg longer than he should because the bullpen's always fried. If that happens we're going to risk ruining premium arms just to make it through meaningless losing seasons.
Some of you might be thinking, "wait, why is this a good move and yet Scott Olsen according to you is terrible. Isn't he a good bet give us at least 180 innings of sub-5.00 ball?" Answer: first, I think he's less of a good bet to do that than Cabrera, but more importantly, we didn't give up three young, improving players with upside for Cabrera. And Cabrera isn't the clubhouse cancer that Olsen has been. (And besides, Olsen's just a rich, spoiled, unlikable jerk, and you can't make me root for him if I don't wanna.)
One last thought--if Cabrera struggles early, Manny should really consider trying him in the bullpen. That slider-fastball combo is much more of a reliever's repertoire anyway, and the command issues would be hidden a bit more back there. That would of course negate his value as an innings-eater, but it's possible that with his heat he could be converted into a good 7th or 8th inning reliever.