Low-risk, high-reward deals are built upon short commitments at low cost, and they’re usually given to players with upside, players who may have underperformed in recent seasons but are known to have been successful in the past, or those who are prone to injury and at risk of missing significant time. The underlying hope is that such players will turn a corner or experience a career renaissance, producing at a level far exceeding expectations. Relative to dollars spent per win, it doesn’t require much production for one of these players to earn his keep, and by limiting the guarantee of a roster spot to no more than one season and paying a relatively small stipend for his services, teams can avoid getting burned should their addition suddenly start pitching like Dan Kolb or developing the health habits of Mark Prior. The perfect example of a low-risk, high-reward deal in 2008 saw Kyle Lohse sign a one-year, $4.25 million contract with the Cardinals. A popular pick to be this season’s low-risk success is Daniel Cabrera, but to expand on a subject I touched on last week, he actually carries much more risk than meets the eye.

The Orioles non-tendered Cabrera back in December, and within weeks at least 11 suitors had reportedly lined up. Apparently, close to one third of the league felt that they could turn the 27-year-old Cabrera, who has yet to figure out the proper application of his abilities, into an effective pitcher. Last week, I compared Cabrera to Oliver Perez, another 27-year-old power pitcher, showing that their 2006-08 statistics were very similar. A three-year average does not tell the entire story for Cabrera, however, since his performance has declined in several key statistics since 2006. Cabrera’s ability to induce swings on pitches out of the zone fell from slightly below average to league-worst in 2008, compounded by an almost exponential increase in the rate of contact made with these outside pitches. In turn, his overall contact rate ranked fourth highest in the sport last season. Hardly anyone swung at his outside pitches, but when they did, they made plenty of contact.

Year   GS    IP   K/9  BB/9  HR/9   DERA
2006   26   148   9.6   6.3   0.7   4.44
2007   34   204   7.3   4.6   1.1   5.26
2008   30   180   4.8   4.4   1.2   5.05

Even with half as many strikeouts per nine innings and double the home-run rate from the 2006 season, Cabrera remained very durable, averaging six innings per start in ’08. The durability actually influenced the Orioles decision to cut him loose; with such a drastic drop-off in performance, velocity, and movement, as well as an elbow injury that was reported in September, Cabrera did not seem worthy of the $5-6 million that his durability and service time might have merited in arbitration. The elbow injury may not have surfaced until the end of the season, but his numbers began falling off the charts much sooner.

Period      GS  IP/GS  K/9  BB/9   RA/9
4/2 - 4/28   6   6.2   5.1   5.1   4.14
5/3 - 5/30   6   7.2   4.8   2.3   3.14
6/4 - 7/ 2   6   6.4   5.2   3.1   5.87
7/8 - 8/ 3   6   5.6   5.3   5.6   8.02
8/9 - 9/13   6   4.7   2.9   7.1   7.07

Cabrera’s season started off quite nicely, with a 3.60 ERA in 12 starts, averaging a 54 Game Score over that stretch. Around the beginning of June he reportedly began to tinker with his delivery, an act he was all too familiar with, having altered his pitching motion the year before to try to control the opposing running game. Even when he experienced success, however, what comes off as striking is that at no point throughout the 2008 season did his strikeout rate resemble those of the previous last few years. The difference can largely be attributed to his steadily declining plate discipline metrics. His repertoire featured very comparable velocities and movements to those from the 2007 season, but he struggled to induce outside swings. When hitters did decide to swing, they made contact, either by fouling the pitch off or putting it in play. Finesse pitchers are the breed that usually lacks a put-away pitch, but Cabrera seemed to fit that mold even with an electric fastball. When his secondary offerings weren’t working, it seems that Cabrera decided to almost exclusively use the heater. Of course, what we don’t know is whether or not his injury could have been more serious than reported, hindering his ability to even throw the breaking pitches.

In June he reportedly began to tinker with his delivery, and whether or not his downfall was the direct result of his modified windup, it’s quite apparent that from June 4 to September 13 he looked like a completely different pitcher. Cabrera’s strikeout rate, already down, dropped precipitously at the tail end of the year, while his walk rate merely got worse and worse. His durability faded, and when he did toe the rubber, opposing lineups all hit like Manny Ramirez; those final six starts are astoundingly bad. With such a sharp decline, it might be expected that his velocity and movement had followed a similar pattern.

Period        FB% Velocity   Movement
4/2 - 4/28   65.4   93.9      7.5/9.4
5/3 - 5/30   87.1   93.3      8.5/7.8
6/4 - 7/ 2   80.3   93.3      7.4/8.2
7/8 - 8/ 3   77.4   92.4      7.4/6.9
8/9 - 9/13   76.8   91.1      6.1/7.4

Throughout April, Cabrera mixed his pitches relatively well while also averaging around 94 mph with the heater, and delivering the pitch with great tailing action and a solid rise. For whatever reason, in May he began to rely too much on his fastball, and it ended up being his most successful month. The tail on Cabrera’s fastball, which correlates to ground balls, proved to be at its best, and his velocity held near 93 mph. The problem is, hitters don’t have to think much when a pitcher is only throwing one pitch. Cabrera began to tinker with his delivery after these 12 starts, while throwing close to 80 percent fastballs. Hitters simply stopped swinging at pitches out of the zone, necessitating a higher frequency of pitches in the actual strike zone.

During the final three months of the season, Cabrera’s velocity and movement both fell into oblivion, but his frequency experienced no more than a minimal decrease. He continued to throw the fastball a high percentage of the time, more often than not in the strike zone. A pitcher can get away with throwing strikes with a 93 mph fastball, but Cabrera’s loss of velocity and his failure to make appropriate adjustments were a disaster.

In his final start on September 13, Cabrera’s fastball averaged just 89.6 mph with 4.6 inches of horizontal of movement, 46 percent less than the average fastball tail exhibited in his stellar May starts. The Orioles stated that Cabrera’s sprained elbow involve no structural damage, but according to Will Carroll, there simply is not much else to sprain in the elbow outside of the ulnar collateral ligament; the UCL is what requires fixing in the ever popular Tommy John surgery. The issue then becomes a question of how significant this sprain was and is; it’s probably significant that the Orioles elected to cut ties with him. The Nationals felt the opposite, perhaps anticipating that Cabrera’s elbow can hold up over an entire season.

His weighted mean PECOTA projection calls for a return to his 2007 marks, though with a much-improved home-run rate and a 4.31 ERA in 138 innings with 2.1 WARP, such performance would easily make Cabrera worth the $2.6 million in his contract. The Nationals are gambling that his elbow will hold up for the entire season. While the Nats have little to lose should Cabrera go down, his career may veer down a vastly different road depending on the outcome of this season. Power pitchers with sometimes electric fastballs will always garner multiple reclamation project-type chances, but elbow surgery could impact the extent to which they involve guaranteed contracts as opposed to non-roster opportunities. Last week I suggested that Cabrera could spend 10 years in the major leagues before anyone realizes that his potential will always exceed his actual results. The 2009 season may be virtually meaningless to the Washington Nationals franchise, but it means an awful lot to Cabrera.