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After being picked up as Jhonny Peralta insurance in 2006, Asdrubal Cabrera has instead turned into Josh Barfield‘s replacement at second during this season. The slick-fielding 21-year-old now finds himself on a team fighting for an American League Championship Series berth during his rookie campaign. What does the future hold for this middle infielder, and what does he bring to the table for this potentially World Series bound Tribe?

Asdrubal Cabrera hails from Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, and it was from there that the 16-year-old signed as an undrafted free agent with the Mariners. At the age of 17 he played for Aguirre in the Venezuelan Rookie League. Although Cabrera lacked power-his .101 ISO is somewhat acceptable for a middle infielder, but almost nowhere else-he showed some control of the strike zone, walking in seven percent of his plate appearances while striking out in 13.5 percent. He was just 5-for-10 on steals, foreshadowing that Cabrera would never really turn into much of a basestealing threat. However, he was named an all-star shortstop in this professional debut.

Cabrera’s signing-if he had stayed with the Mariners, anyways-would have helped make up for the 2002 draft, in which they were awarded a D by Baseball America in 2004, and an F in both 2005 and 2006 due to their failures to sign John Mayberry Jr. or Eddy Martinez-Esteve. No player from that draft cracked the Mariners’ top 30 prospects until 2006, when T.J. Bohn slotted in at the last spot, and John Mayberry Jr. was later drafted in the first round again out of college.

Cabrera would next play for Everett in the Low-A Northwest League at age 18, and he would end up being named an All-Star at the shortstop position for his 42 games there. Cabrera also played 17 games at second base and five at third:

Year Team          AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%    K%
2004 Everett(A-)  239  .272/.330/.427   37% .155   19     7.7%  15.7%

This season looks similar to his previous work in Rookie League, except that he was able to add some points to his ISO. Cabrera was considered a fine defensive shortstop that had a chance to stick at the position, so the line above would be enough to give him above-average value when combined with that defense. Throw in the fact that Cabrera was just 18 and a second time all-star at short in just his second pro season, and you have yourself a player who is potentially better than his hitting stats suggested.

Because of those kinds of considerations, Cabrera appeared on the prospect scene following his nifty 2004 campaign, with Baseball America ranking him the 11th-best prospect in the Mariners’ organization:

Cabrera was the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer League’s All-Star shortstop in his pro debut, so the Mariners skipped him past the Arizona League in 2004. He repeated as an All-Star in the Northwest League, where at 18 he was the youngest regular in the league. Polished for his age, Cabrera’s all-around game is similar to that of Orlando Cabrera (no relation). A switch-hitter with some gap power, he may have the most pure bat among the system’s shortstop prospects. He’s also one of its better athletes. An acrobatic defender, Cabrera covers plenty of ground and has reliable hands. He has average arm strength and better accuracy. Cabrera’s lower half looks like it could get too thick for shortstop, but he’s so smooth that Seattle’s doesn’t foresee that he’ll have to move to another position. He’ll need to show more patience to hit into his projected number two spot in the batting order. The Mariners are ready to jump Cabrera a level again, deeming him ready for high Class A in 2005. He’ll split time at shortstop with Adam Jones after doing so with Oswaldo Navarro in 2004.

Between Cabrera, Adam Jones, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Navarro, the Mariners were loaded with shortstop prospects. Perhaps as an adaptation to that circumstance, Jones has since been moved to the outfield, while Navarro was rushed to Triple-A at the age of 22, and has hit just .249/.309/.323 there in 446 at-bats.

Baseball Prospectus 2005 was fond of Asdrubal Cabrera, and seemed to like him a bit better than Jose Lopez:

The best position player the Mariners have in the low minors. He’s compared to Jose Lopez, but Cabrera’s showing a little more power and a little better batting eye than Lopez did at the same level (at 17). He also has a much better chance to stick at short.

Lopez made the switch to second base for the M’s, and has struggled offensively for four seasons in the majors. He is still just 23 years old, but Cabrera looked better at his young age than Lopez did, and he would spend his 2005 jumping up through levels faster than Lopez had before him:

Year Team                AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%    K%
2005 Wisconsin(A)       192  .318/.407/.474   31% .156   15     13.2%  14.0%
2005 Inland Empire(A+)  225  .284/.325/.418   34% .134   21      6.1%  19.3%
2005 Tacoma(AAA)         23  .217/.250/.304   20% .087    1      4.0%  16.0%

Cabrera excelled at Wisconsin, with excellent patience, good contact, and plenty of power for a shortstop who can field. The K/BB ratio as a hitter was excellent, as Cabrera showed excellent pitch recognition and discipline. He also played second base, since Matt Tuiasosopo was also a shortstop on his team, but he played well at the keystone. His stint at Inland Empire did not go as well from a statistical point of view, but the 19-year-old held his own. The significant drop in his walk rate combined with the rise in his strikeout totals should have let the organization know that he needed some time to adjust to the level of play, but the Mariners decided to move him up to Triple-A. He predictably suffered there, though in only limited action.

Cabrera moved up to sixth on Baseball America’s ranking of Mariner farmhands before the 2006 season:

An all-star shortstop in each of his first two seasons, Cabrera ceded the position to Matt Tuiasosopo at low Class A Wisconsin and dazzled at second base. Promoted to high Class A when Adam Jones moved to Double-A, Cabrera returned to shortstop and didn’t miss a beat. He finished the season as Tacoma’s starting shortstop in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. Managers rated Cabrera the best defensive second baseman in the Midwest League, and some voted for him at shortstop. He’s an acrobat with plus range, arm strength, hands and instincts. Offensively, he’s a switch-hitter who makes contact and has some pop. His speed is average. Cabrera can get too aggressive at the plate and needs to draw more walks to bat near the top of a lineup. Some scouts wonder how much offense he’ll provide in the majors. His bat speed is just average, and he doesn’t stand out in terms of on-base skills, power or basestealing ability.

Baseball Prospectus 2006 did like Cabrera as a hitter in the future:

Another good-looking middle-infield prospect moving from shortstop to second base as a nod to Betancourt, Cabrera projects well as a hitter. He made it all the way to Triple-A last year at 19, though it’s clear he was rushed. There’s a solid skill set here, including precocious pitch recognition. We’ll know more when Cabrera plays a full season in a more competitive environment than A-ball, where would-be prospects are often homesick, unable to order a cheeseburger after moving from another country to rural Montana, or just plain lousy.

Cabrera would start the year with the Mariners organization, but he would be traded to the Indians for occasionally-healthy platoon DH Eduardo Perez, a deal with grim implications for the Mariners at the outset. He spent the whole season at Triple-A for both organizations:

Year Team           AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%    K%
2006 Tacoma(AAA)   203  .236/.319/.360   35% .124   14    10.3%  21.9%
2006 Buffalo(AAA)  190  .263/.293/.337   24% .074   11     3.8%  18.8%

His stint at Tacoma wasn’t all bad; his ISO was acceptable for a middle infielder with his defensive ability, and though his strikeout rate was higher than you like to see for someone who is going to need some batting average, his walk rate was over 10 percent. He faired worse at Buffalo after the trade, as his power and patience slipped considerably. Kevin Goldstein nevertheless awarded Cabrera honorable mention for his midseason shortstop rankings despite his struggles with the bat; you can thank his youth age and fantastic glovework for that.

Heading into 2007, the Indians realized that Cabrera had been rushed to Triple-A, especially after they saw firsthand how poorly he was doing there for their own affiliate. They moved him to Double-A Akron to start this season, and the results were excellent:

Year Team         AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%    K%
2007 Akron(AA)   368  .310/.381/.454   30% .144   26    10.6%   9.9%

Cabrera showed fantastic control of the strike zone, walking in almost 11 percent of his plate appearances and striking out in just under 10 percent for a K/BB of 42/45. He continued to display just enough power, but the contact rate is the focal point. Kevin Goldstein mentioned him as a Great Leap Forward player in his “Risers and Fallers” piece from July this year, and Cabrera soon found himself back in Triple-A for a short spell before moving on up to the majors at the tender age of 21. Josh Barfield’s awful season (.244/.273/.318) prompted the call-up of Cabrera in the beginning of August. Cabrera almost immediately took the everyday job away from Barfield, delivering a respectable .283/.354/.421 in 159 at-bats, pretty close to his 90th percentile PECOTA forecast of .283/.337/.421:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%    K%
2007 Cleveland(MLB)   159  .283/.354/.421   31% .138   11     9.7%   18.2%

Cabrera has acquitted himself more than adequately, outperforming anything Jose Lopez has done in the majors so far for the M’s, though in only a very brief amount of time. The good news for Cabrera is that he’s usually struck out very little when he’s adjusted to a level, and more time in the majors may bring a higher contact rate, and with it, higher batting averages. Combine that with his pitch recognition and ability to draw a walk when he isn’t overmatched with the level, and you have yourself a fine offensive shortstop, despite the lack of real power.

As for his glove, Cabrera managed to accumulate four Fielding Runs Above Average in just 40.4 Adjusted Games (AdjG) for the Tribe. If he had qualified, his .850 Revised Zone Rating-a John Dewan invention-would have ranked seventh in the majors, and fourth in the American League. He’s very smooth afield, and is more than capable at second base. Take the chance to watch him in the playoffs to get a sense of his defensive abilities.

As for his future, I wouldn’t be shocked if Cabrera hit something like .285/.360/.440 next year with plus defense at second base. It will be interesting to see how PECOTA handles him for the 2008 season, given that he reached his 90th percentile forecast as a very young player without going too overboard on his BABIP-Cabrera hit a line drive roughly 20 percent of the time, and his .331 BABIP was not too far off from what you would expect from that. He may even be able to replace Peralta at shortstop in the future if his defensive and offensive struggles continue at the same time that his contract’s value grows.

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