- Cary Greene
Is Oswaldo Cabrera the Answer?
By Cary Greene
January 29, 2023
One particularly fascinating storyline to watch this season will be how Oswaldo Cabrera fairs in his first full MLB season. Frankly, what he accomplished in a mere 44 games last season was nothing short of remarkable. Though his performance caught even FanGraphs a bit off guard, most of the faithful here on SSTN knew Cabrera had a lot more pop than most in the media had labeled him with. In what was an abbreviated sample size to say the least, Cabrera accumulated a 1.5 fWAR while playing surprisingly good defense in right field and average defense in left field.
Best suited as a utility player based on his tremendous versatility and solid defensive aptitude at each position he plays, the Yankees have to be salivating at the thought of the value that the soon to be 24-year-old Cabrera brings to the roster. How many utility players in MLB have tangible in game power? The short answer is not many. While Cabrera will never be vintage Ben Zobrist level (8.9 fWAR at his peak), he could turn out to be a very key player for the Yankees going forward.
The Yankees Dilemma in Left Field
This season though, the Yankees desperately need to figure out left field. Brian Cashman said recently on MLB Network Radio, “ I suspect he (Aaron Hicks) will be the guy that emerges, because he’s still really talented, everything’s there.” “Hopefully, we get the Aaron Hicks that we know is in there back as a consistent player for us.”
Projections aren’t in lock-step with Cashman’s take though, as Hicks is projected by ZIPS to be worth 0.8 WAR in 2023. Let’s agree to call a spade a spade regarding Cashman’s comments. He’s clearly trying to build perceived value out of one side of his mouth, actively shopping him with intent to trade him out of the other. SSTN readers won’t be fooled by Cashman as he’s been operating like this for years. Rival GM’s aren’t fooled either, which is why Cashman has failed to trade Hicks up to this point. Nobody wants an overpaid, often injured player with negative offensive value.
I’ll lead with this: Mark me down for predicting that Brian Cashman, curtailed by Hal Steinbrenner’s refusal to go into the CBT’s Tier Four by surpassing the $293 million payroll threshold, will be shopping for a left fielder once again, like he always does, at the 2023 Trade Deadline. Ultimately, I think Aaron Hicks is too inconsistent and in decline and I also don’t think Oswaldo Cabrera is where he needs to be offensively to force the Yankees hand and become content with him as the starter.
Additionally, you can mark me down as being in favor of trading for a player who represents an upgrade from Hicks and Cabrera. I’ve floated Austin Meadows as being the best fit via a trade. Today, I’ll examine what the Yankees' standing pat regarding left field looks like - is rolling with what they have viable? Can Hicks bounce back, or, can Cabrera be a stop gap solution, or more?
There is a very real possibility that Oswaldo Cabrera could literally take over in left field during the 2023 season and it will likely happen sooner than later. Hicks is a very streaky player and not if, but when he either goes into a funk or gets injured, he’ll be buried on the bench and relegated to being the team’s fifth outfielder. Conversely, Hicks will play so long as he stays hot and is in good health. ZIPS is projecting Hicks will get 215 at-bats in 2023. They project Cabrera to get 486, so clearly it’s Cabrera and not Hicks who is truly projected to impact the Yankees in 2023.
Could Hicks outperform projections? He’s like a speculative stock, Cashman is right that Hicks does have talent. His recovery from surgery that was performed on his left wrist, which was to repair a torn tendon sheath, has had plenty of time to heal. A mostly healthy Hicks hit 27 home runs in 2018 with an ISO of 219 but he’s steadily declined since then, posting a 208 ISO in 2019, then a 189 in the Pandemic shortened 2020 season, down to a 139 in 2021. Coming back from wrist surgery absolutely takes time and I’m willing to toss out his woeful .096 2022 ISO.
One thing about projections is that they really don’t take into account variables like player health and certainly, a player who is recovering from a wrist injury is a pretty tricky widget to project. STEAMERS meanwhile thinks Hicks will decline slightly from his 2022 performance and put up a 1.3 fWAR season mostly driven by strong defensive play, which they feel will make up for a bit below average offensive production (.309 wOBA and a 102 wRC+).
Personally I think Hicks could be an under the radar bounce back candidate in 2023. Looking at his PECOTA player comps, which are powerful indicators of likely performance of a current player at a certain age, Jim Landis, Dexter Fowler and Dwayne Murphy are listed. Looking at their age-33 seasons, Landis (.317 wOBA, 105 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR), Fowler (.326 wOBA, 103 wRC+ 0.8 fWAR) and Murphy (.334 wOBA and 111 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR) cumulatively averaged a .326 wOBA and a 111 wRC+ and a 0.7 f-WAR.
If healthy (and that’s a big if), Hicks might approach these numbers while also playing good defense and providing well above average base running, so this would be a realistic best case scenario for the Yankees. Clearly, all forms of projecting Hicks show that while he’s an acceptable bit-part, he’s likely not going to hold off the charge of Oswaldo Cabrera.
The question is, what would a full season of Oswaldo Cabrera look like and why is he, barring a trade, likely the answer for 2023.
Quantifying Oswaldo Cabrera
Small sample size noise needs to be minimized when considering Cabrera’s 2022 performance, as he only recorded 154 at-bats, so what do we see when peering into Cabrera’s potential? Aaron Hicks plays slightly above average defense. He was rated 1 Out Above Average by StatCast in left field last season, so the first thing we need to dispel is the notion that Hicks is so incredibly valuable defensively that he might block Cabrera. This simply isn’t true, because it’s actually Cabrera’s bat, or should I say Hicks’ lack of one, that makes Cabrera a far more likely candidate to usurp Hick’s viability as a starter for 2023. Any way the cake is sliced, Cabrera is a better offensive player with tons more upside to boot.
What was intriguing about Cabrera’s small sample size is that he was putting the barrel of the bat on the ball (6.3%) enough to only be slightly under the MLB average (6.7%). He also hit the ball hard enough (34.8%) to be very close to MLB average (35.8%). It is quite possible that he gets better with more reps, as he acclimates to MLB pitching and if this happens, results will follow. But make no mistake, the jury is still out on Cabrera and there are some things not to like. Permit to me to lay it all out at this stage of the article.
Pumping the brakes a bit, the reason I maintain that ultimately, Cabrera is likely destined to be a utility player is because in his small sample size last season, he got fairly lucky, as evidenced by his wOBA being 35 points lower than the expected results (.287 xwOBA) of the contact he made. When we subtract out walks and hit-by-pitches, Cabrera was a below MLB average performer in 2022, as evidenced by his xwoBACON of .347, where League average is a .368. StatCast clearly suggests Cabrera wasn’t all that great with the bat in 2022. Still, I see some upside because he’s barely getting used to MLB pitching.
With more reps, what might the big picture look like for Cabrera offensively. Cabrera’s fairly mature strike zone recognition, he walked (8.8%) at a slightly higher than MLB average (8.4%) clip last season, is an indicator that there is significant hope that he could improve quite a bit at the plate. Many rookies come up and struggle to walk, but Cabrera was able to get on base via the free pass more effectively than the average Major Leaguer.
Looking at the other side of the coin though, strikeouts are definitely a big issue for him going forward. Coming into the league, he obviously struggled here. Cabrera swung at 36.7% outside the zone. Framing that, Andrew Benintendi (27.9%) was far more disciplined at the plate and this is an area where Hicks (23.7%) shows that to start the season, he’s quite a bit more polished in terms of pitch recognition.
Of course there’s more to pitch recognition. Swinging at good pitches to hit also helps to quantify a hitter’s strike zone recognition and in terms of swinging at strikes, Cabrera’s 75 percent ratio here shows a willingness to tag a strike. Hicks (64.5%) meanwhile lays off too many strikes. Another piece to consider is can the hitter work a pitch count into a favorable, fastball count. Cabrera swings at 52.5 percent of all pitches and MLB pitchers clearly know it, so they expand the zone on him. Hicks meanwhile only swings at 40.8% of all pitches and he’s able to get himself into better counts as a result.
The challenge for Cabrera will be to not chase pitches as MLB pitchers begin to test him. Word is already out, Cabrera likes to go fishing. He’ll need to tighten up dramatically in this department, it’s a challenge many rookies face. Overall, Cabrera struck out (25.7%) of the time last year, which is well above MLB average (22.1%). This will be something to keep an eye on in 2023 and if he can decrease his strikeout rate, he may be able to cement his status as the heir apparent in left field.
However, if the strikeout rate inches up and he continues to trend below league average in terms of the results of the contact he makes, he could just as easily slip in the wrong direction. At the end of the season, top shelf MLB pitching was beginning to expose Cabrera a bit and I think most Yankees fans “eye test” would remember that and confirm this to be true.
However, when we look at Cabrera’s ceiling as a hitter, one thing to be intrigued by is how he uses the whole field with his approach and he does a fantastic job of getting the ball in the air, hitting it 50 percent of the time when he does connect. Combined with his in game power, this bodes well.
Then there’s the matter of his ability to switch hit and handle both left-handed and right handed pitchers equally well. This is not something Aaron Hicks is capable of doing and it’s a big reason, when coupled with Hick’s steady decline and PECOTA player comps, why Cabrera is likely the more viable solution going forward.
In terms of value, I think it’s possible that Cabrera could do a fine job as a stop gap left field solution, at least holding the fort until a top shelf prospect like Jasson Dominguez or Everson Pereira crashes the party. In fact, just to frame that statement, if Cabrera were a free agent last season, he’d have been worth $12.3 million.
Cabrera’s defense is easily good enough to justify starting him over Hicks, providing Cabrera improves his strikeout rate and also begins to make more effective contact. While there is reason to be encouraged, let’s be clear here. Cabrera needs some drastic improvement if the Yankees are going to make him the new starting left fielder. Personally, I’m intrigued, a bit enthused but also realistic. That’s why I always defer to the best deployment of Cabrera as being that of a utility player. Let’s say that Cabrera is able to slowly adjust to MLB pitching and lets say his in game power begins to shine and he is able to become more disciplined at the plate.
Defensively, the Yankees are looking at a very young outfielder who has a throwing arm in the 90th percentile of the League, who likely plays only average overall defense in left field. Last year FanGraphs credited Cabrera with 9 Defensive Runs Saved in right field and 0 saved in left field. Why then is Cabrera so much better in right field?
Mainly because he’s only an average runner (55th percentile). Though he gets very good jumps on balls, he doesn’t cover a lot of ground and the routes he takes to balls in play are only average.
When Cabrera’s defense is quantified by StatCast, we see that he moves well going back and to his left and he’s very good moving in and to his right. Meanwhile, he moves below average in and to his left and otherwise, he’s only average overall, coming in and going back on balls.
Cabrera will never be a viable left fielder in Yankee Stadium because he’s just too slow. Thinking back to vintage Brett Gardener, I think most Yankees fans understand that speed plays in left field. That said, Cabrera can be an average defender in left field but his best outfield position, especially in Yankee stadium, is very clearly right field and this should be no surprise. Where else would an average runner with a mini bazooka for a throwing arm play best in Yankee stadium?
Left field at the stadium truly does have a lot more ground to cover and that’s bad news for a slower runner, especially for one who especially struggles coming in and moving to his left as too many catchable balls will fall in for base hits. What the Yankees need from Cabrera is for him to contribute and help to hold the fort in left field for this season. It’s a big ask, for sure, given his skill set.
Overall, there’s reason to be encouraged but Yankees fans have a tendency to be overly hopeful about rookies without realizing they need to go through the growing pains necessary to find their strides at the Major League level. It’s likely that this will be the case with Cabrera. Can a developing Cabrera unseat Aaron Hicks and become a stop gap solution for the Yankees in left field?
The jury is out. I’m inclined to think Cashman is right, left field is a job for the streaky Hicks to lose and I do think he’ll do just that. Even if his wrist is a bit better, a prolonged dry spell won’t be tolerated this year because Aaron Boone has Oswaldo Cabrera sitting on the bench this season in a utility role. Hicks will likely leave the door open for Cabrera to get his shot. But can Cabrera capitalize? Yankees fans are hopeful, so let's arrive at some reasonable conclusions.
One thing I do know, is that if Cabrera starts becoming more consistent, it’s game, set and match and he’ll become the man, at least for this season and barring a trade. If Hicks rebounds and Cabrera remains undisciplined at the plate, the Yankees will probably be better off with Hicks, while trying feverishly to do what they always seem to do at the Trade Deadline - which is to once again trade for a left fielder!
I’ve written a lot about what the plan with Aaron Judge signed might look like. Yankees fans know why Cashman hasn’t been able to sign a premium left fielder this offseason. The Yankees were very much connected to Masataka Yoshida, Andrew Benintendi and perhaps most notably, to Brandon Nimmo. The offseason “market Gods” were very kind players this offseason and teams were spending record amounts on both position players and pitchers alike - the Yankees included.
Once Carlos Rodon was signed, it was Hal Steinbrenner who pumped the fiscal brakes. I’ll go so far as to say that if the Yankees don’t make a trade to upgrade from wherever Hicks or Cabrera sets the bar (which will likely be pretty low), then left field will continue to plague Cashman’s Yankees going forward.
When the trade options are considered, STEAMERS projections indicate Austin Meadows is the least expensive, most suitable option if Cashman wanted to dump Aaron Hicks.
However, splits are an important part of player fit and while meadows is the best left-handed hitter available, he’s unplayable against left handed pitchers, but Stanton could always be used and so too could the Yankees turn to Cabrera when facing a lefty.
There’s been some healthy debate about how the Yankees should solve the current left field situation. I do think the team needs a left-handed bat like Meadows, but I also feel they need to get as much as possible out of Giancarlo Stanton. Aaron Boone has already indicated that he’s hoping Stanton is in a good place physically, so he can play some right field at Yankee stadium. Boone also indicated Stanton could be a very part time option in left field, when the Yankees are on the road in certain stadiums and a “starter” needs a rest.
It’s clear the Yankees are scouring the trade market while also trying to shed some payroll. The situation will likely bleed into Spring Training. If a team loses a third baseman or an outfielder, perhaps Hicks or Donaldson can yet be moved. If there’s no demand though, then the Trade Deadline might represent another opportunity to revisit trading both players and by then, a left fielder who represents an upgrade may become available.