The Cleveland Indians enter spring training with a classic situation of an incumbent player being pushed by a top prospect. Asdrubal Cabrera is a former All-Star who has been the team’s starting shortstop for the past five seasons. Francisco Lindor is a top prospect — the No. 6 prospect in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law — but is just 20 years old and has played only 21 games above Class A. The plan for Lindor will probably be to give him a half-season of playing time in the minors before even thinking about promoting him to the major league level. But there are more than a few reasons why pushing him to the big leagues for Opening Day and trading Cabrera is the right move for Cleveland.
Most prospects need plenty of seasoning to mature, but Lindor profiles as a player who is capable of making a rapid ascension.
First, he already plays major league quality defense. Projections vary but concur that he will be an asset. That is important, particularly given the plan to convert Carlos Santana to third base. Lindor is also the type of hitter who won’t rely on power to succeed. While his power may show up at a later date, Lindor has a good enough batting eye that he should be able to grind out good at-bats in the majors right now. In his minor league career, he has walked 111 times against just 129 strikeouts, and last season he walked more times (49) than he struck out (46). That’s kind of a big deal. For reference, just four qualified hitters did that at the major league level last season.
And while Lindor’s projections are modest — his three projections on FanGraphs range from 78-89 wRC+ — those are actually right about league average. Last season, major league shortstops averaged just an 85 wRC+, with American League shortstops being a tick under that at 84. Combine league average offensive production with plus defense, and you essentially have Elvis Andrus, who has been at least a two-win player in each of his five seasons in The Show. And if Lindor can hit as he is projected to, he will have the chance to be a four-win player right out of the gate.
There is always the chance that he won’t hit right out of the gate, but in Terry Francona, Lindor would have a sympathetic manager, as Francona has found himself in this situation before.
In 2007, the Red Sox were trying to get back to the postseason after the 2006 campaign left them with a sour taste in their mouths. The team was installing highly touted rookie Dustin Pedroia at second base, and he got off to the slowest of slow starts. By the end of April, he was hitting .182 AVG/.308 OBP/.236 SLG, and the calls for Pedroia’s removal came often. Francona stuck with Pedroia, though, and he went on to hit .333/.389/.467 for the remainder of the season, win Rookie of the Year, and help the Red Sox win their second World Series trophy in four years. This isn’t a prediction for some similar situation involving Lindor, but the point is that Francona has the steady hand to help guide a young player through slumps.
Slumping is what Cabrera did for most of the 2013 season. From 2009 to 2012, Cabrera posted a 110 wRC+ that was fifth-best among qualified shortstops. His numbers might have been better if a fractured forearm hadn’t thrown his 2010 season off-kilter. But last season his numbers took a sharp southward turn. He posted just a 95 wRC+, and there is little reason to think that he’ll get back to the career-best 119 wRC+ that he posted in 2011.
The first reason: his plate discipline stats. His swing percentages have risen in recent years, to the point that he swings at an above-average number of pitches. That was fine when he was able to make contact at an above-average rate, but last year his contact percentage dropped by more than 4 percent, to the point that it was essentially league average. He was an equal-opportunity misser, as his contact rate dropped on both balls inside and outside the strike zone, and his Z-Contact% (contact percentage for balls in the strike zone) was slightly below average last season.
The offensive decline would be fine if he was contributing positively in other areas, but he isn’t. Cabrera has declined as a baserunner. His BsR has declined in each of the past five seasons, from 3.4 in 2009 to minus-2.6 last season. And Cabrera has never been a plus defender. Over the past three seasons, he ranks as the third-worst shortstop by DRS (defensive runs saved), and the absolute worst shortstop by UZR/150 (ultimate zone rate per 150 games). The latter, UZR/150, really puts into perspective just how bad Cabrera has been. It isn’t a cumulative measure, but rather is scaled to a 150-game season, and by that measure, Cabrera is by far the worst defensive shortstop — more than seven runs worse than the second-to-worst.
Infield defense will be especially important for the Indians this season for a couple of reasons. First, their starting pitchers behind Justin Masterson present a variety of question marks, and Masterson himself is a ground ball-inducing dynamo. The Indians will need a steady SS hand defensively, and only Lindor is capable of providing it. Furthermore, as above, the Indians are carrying out a plan to convert catcher Santana into a third baseman. Santana probably won’t spend the majority of his time there, but even 50 games where the left side of the infield is a former catcher and an absolute butcher could produce nightmarish sequences.
Santana’s transition to the hot corner would go a lot more smoothly if he had Lindor covering for him in the hole.
Finally, Cabrera is set to become a free agent at the end of the season, and there is very little chance that the Indians will re-sign him. They might have the luxury of waiting until the non-waiver trade deadline to move him, but if he tanks out of the gate, they may end up having to cut him and call it a day. Right now, he still has a solid track record, which fuels projections of a bounce-back campaign. If he is traded, there is the risk that he could bounce back and have a good season, but as a small-market team, the Indians need to be aggressive about jettisoning players before they reach their expiration date. And trading him is a move that is made that much easier by the fact that they have a top prospect waiting in the wings. Teams like the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees all have middle-infield concerns, and may be willing to part with a B-level prospect in exchange for Cabrera. And with Cabrera’s $10 million salary off the books, the Indians would have the flexibility to upgrade their rotation come midseason if they don’t catch lightning in a bottle with one of their fifth-starter candidates — and they probably won’t.
It is never easy to deal an incumbent player, but Cabrera’s days are numbered in Cleveland, and Lindor is basically major league-ready. Trading Cabrera and installing Lindor would bring payroll flexibility and improve the team’s defense drastically, and the offensive drop-off compared to last season would likely be minimal. Law summed it up succinctly in his profile of Lindor this winter: “I’m not sure what remains for Lindor to learn before he’s ready to take over the position in Cleveland.”
It takes an aggressive organization to make such a move, but the small-market Indians need to be aggressive if they hope to get back to the postseason.