Everth Cabrera: franchise shortstop, or beautiful baseball unicorn?

Ever since Everth Cabrera was acquired by the Padres in 2009, he’d represented little more to me than a low-risk acquisition at a position of scarcity. Where immense athletic talent coupled with stunted development was essentially given an opportunity to compete in an environment with almost zero competition. A Rule 5 pick catapulted from A-ball to the big leagues at age 23 is story enough, but the subsequent details resemble a story that more closely resembles a mythic tall tale than an accurate, biographical account:

  • In a country not necessarily overrun with baseball talent, named Nicaragua’s Athlete of the Year his rookie season. He’d repeat this feat in 2012.
  • Loses not one, but both hamate bones to surgery. Legend has it that instead of simply removing them, they surgically implant shards of Tony Gwynn’s infamous “Seven Grains of Pain” in their place.
  • Was arrested for alleged domestic violence.
  • Despite only playing in 111 games and getting his official call-up in late-May, goes on to lead the National League with 44 stolen bases in 2012.
  • Became entangled (and quickly forgotten) in the growing Biogenesis sports clinic scandal along with teammates Yasmani Grandal and Fautino De Los Santos.

Between these extreme ups and downs, fast forward five seasons and the experiment appears to have paid off.

His 2013 season is turning into must-see theater and a rather captivating subject when it comes to development and long-term outlook. The former Rule 5 draft pick is not only on pace to surpass previous career-highs in nearly every offensive category, but is fast approaching some of the best seasons for a shortstop in Padres history. Cabrera might have even forced himself onto the shortlist as one of the best shortstops in franchise history.

Now, low as the bar might be for Padres shortstops, it’s worth pointing out the historical significance of what Cabrera has accomplished through his first 50 games. Whether it be Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs, Everth’s 2.1 WAR already ties him for the 10th-best season of all SS in franchise history. Career, his WAR is already currently among the Top 5 Padres shortstops and if, in the team’s next 111 games, he manages to tack on another full win in value, his season would rank at or around the Top 3.

Cabrera’s 117 wRC+ also puts him in exclusive company as one of only four shortstops in franchise history to have a 100 wRC+ or greater, 200 PA minimum:

Year Player G PA wRC+
2013 Everth Cabrera 51 233 117
2004 Khalil Greene 139 554 110
2010 Miguel Tejada 59 253 105
1988 Dickie Thon 93 296 105

No, your eyes do not deceive you – Miguel Tejada makes that list. Also note that Khalil Greene’s 110 wRC+ in his 2004 rookie season makes him the only qualified Padres shortstop to finish with a wRC+ over 100.

So, fluke or not, what Everth Cabrera has done to this point is a rather rare feat when compared to those that came before him. Drink it in, Padres fans.

When it comes to predicting Cabrera’s future, however, the crystal ball is a bit murkier. On one hand, it’s easy to look at his reduced strikeouts, escalating walk rate, and uptick in power and think that he’s turned a corner. But it’s not even June. While Cabrera was drawing rave reviews for his insane month of April, his K% and BB% in May have pretty much mirrored his career averages. And while his contact rates have increased slightly, he’s currently hitting line drives at nearly 10% greater than his career rate and his ISO is the highest it’s been at any stop since a 4-game spell at High-A in 2007.

Then there’s the 16.0% HR/FB, which seems unsustainable for a few reasons:

  1. PETCO Park’s fence modifications weren’t that drastic.
  2. Only a handful of shortstops not named Derek Jeter or Troy Tulowitzki have sustained a rate that high for an entire season over the past decade.
  3. Cabrera’s next HR on the season, his 5th, will match his career total going into 2013.

While nothing is set in stone, I often find myself consulting this handy chart (and accompanying article) when considering statistics stabilization:

PAs_until_stabilize

I’ve considered getting that permanently etched on my body in tattoo form. It’s entirely possible that this offensive outburst is sustainable over the course of a season, but whether or not it’s an irregularity for a player that, historically, hasn’t exactly shown patience or pop I have absolutely no idea.

The biggest development, to me, has been his growth on defense. Since his debut in 2009, Cabrera had logged approximately 2,300 innings at shortstop to the tune of a -13 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), -16.7 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and a .960 fielding percentage (FP). No matter his incredible foot speed and cannon arm, that was enough to rank him near the bottom of all MLB shortstops during that time frame.

This season, the athletic play he’s always seemed capable of making isn’t as commonly cancelled out with a boneheaded mistake an inning later. Furthermore, his range – especially to his right – appears to be a bit improved. Cabrera still tends to make the routine a bit too much of an adventure for my liking, but I can deal with his limitations and average defensive production if he continues to minimize the mistakes.

Still, it’s worth noting that a good couple of weeks can swing the pendulum wildly one way or the other. Prior to the Interleague series in Tampa Bay, Cabrera had a -2 DRS on the year; a figure not uncommon given his career performance. Since then, he’s performed well enough to illicit praise from home and visiting broadcasters alike, swinging his season tally to +1 DRS, 6.6 UZR/150, and a .988 FP.

It’s dangerous to draw any conclusions from production that only represents 30% of the entire season. Still, it’s encouraging to see Cabrera not only posting career-best figures across the stat sheet but passing the eye test, as well.

Now that raises the (multi-)million dollar question: would the Padres be wise to lock up Cabrera with a long-term deal? That’s a bit harder to know.

On one hand, it could be argued that after 50 games he’s building upon what is already a career year. There’s a lot to like about what Everth has shown thus far, as his approach at the plate seems a bit more disciplined, the mental gaffes seem less frequent, and his defense has found its way into regular rotation on MLB highlight reels. That, coupled with a lack of legitimate internal options that could challenge his stranglehold on the position (apologies to Jace Peterson), it might not be a bad idea to look to a long-term pact.

On the other, it’s 50 games. While Cabrera’s rate stats indicate a better approach, his offensive value is aided in large part by a career-high .131 ISO. That’s almost undoubtedly bound to regress, although Cabrera seems to be full of unexpected surprises this season. Given his unique developmental path, career performance, and current production, it might be in the club’s best interest to hold off on a long-term commitment until he’s proven he can do this for more than a couple months at a time.

There’s also the matter of his representation, which is none other than Scott Boras. Despite his argument to the contrary

Boras said any perception that he only takes players to free agency is wrong. In the last eight years, he said his agency has signed 16 players to contracts before entering free agency.

“We do what the client wants us to do,” Boras said.

…Boras has, um, a reputation within in the industry. What’s more, it’s not as if the cases where his clients inked a multi-year pact prior to free agency do much to shake his reputation as a ball-buster in negotiations – Elvis Andrus sacrificed his chance at free agency to the tune of an 8-year, $120 million deal.

While their comparative skill sets don’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s safe to say that Cabrera signed with Boras last November well aware of his escalating market value and seeks to profit even more if this type of production continues.

It remains to be seen whether Everth Cabrera is proving himself to be a cornerstone at a position of scarcity or caught in the middle of a career year, a product of hype due to years of low expectations. Cabrera’s production to this point already has me questioning whether he’s evolved from some beautiful, baseball unicorn – whose tale oftentimes seems more a part of baseball legend – into a legitimate franchise player.

Whether or not he develops into that franchise shortstop the Padres have so desperately coveted feels irrelevant as he assaults franchise records and swipes bags with impunity – enjoy the show. Blink and you might miss it.

 

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  • Charlie Brown

    Other then signing with Boros I find Cabrera to have great baseball instincts on and off the field. Sign a mid-range 3-4 year extension but don’t mortgage Petco to do it.

  • http://twitter.com/SacBuntMelvin Sac Bunt Melvin

    Boras the Ball-Buster has a nice ring to it.

  • Bryan

    This is really well done. Well thought-out, insightful, and realistic. Everth has less than three years of service time so they absolutely don’t need to rush to make a decision on his long-term future, but it sure is nice to see him starting to push the envelope a bit. Here’s to hoping he can keep it up.