Oswaldo Cabrera Must Stay
At this time last week, we were beginning to talk about just how stunningly the Yankees' star had dimmed in the season's second half. New players found the IL seemingly daily, the pitching was more passable than elite, and the offense that was the league's best in the first half was suddenly nearly unwatchable unless Judge or LeMahieu were at the plate. Worst of all, despite Aaron Boone's public (and likely private) pleading, the Yankees just seemed to be playing listless baseball. The Yankees needed a spark, and it wasn't coming from the guys in the clubhouse as of August 16th.
And then the Yankees shook things up. Estevan Florial had been up and down in the past. While some have clamored for him to get time over Aaron Hicks, the reality is that Florial's severe pitch recognition issues will absolutely hinder his ability to access his one carrying tool at the plate: power. Giving Florial a cameo after Hicks' disastrous stretch was probably fair in a strictly democratic sense, but Florial alone wasn't enough of a spark. No, another less heralded prospect was hotter than Mercury at noon since recovering from an early season injury down at AAA: Oswaldo Cabrera.
Before I continue, I want to touch for a minute on Cabrera's prospect pedigree. Cabrera is often overlooked in the Yankee farm system as most focus on shortstop prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza. Even Alexander Vargas, who to this point has not shown the ability to do anything more than breathe on the baseball as it passes the plate, has received more street cred as a prospect than Oswaldo Cabrera. Frankly, this has never made sense to me. I have liked Cabrera since he put on a little weight in 2019 and began stroking doubles all over the field. He does not have a superstar ceiling, this much is true, however the tools that remain are very interesting. Fangraphs' Eric Longenhagen's scouting assessments are some of the most reliable publicly available reports, and in Cabrera's case, his evaluations represent something akin to the median viewpoint on Cabrera's potential. Over the last two seasons, Longenhagen has noted Cabrera's eye-catching exit velocity readings, which are among the best in the Yankee farm system; his thickening lower half, which could eventually make Cabrera more limited defensively, but also is the primary contributor to his increased ability to impact the baseball on contact; a fringy arm that may or may not be good enough on the left side of the infield; some curious swing decisions combined with a stellar feel for making contact, which could lead to unfortunate weak contact on pitches out of the zone and a lower OBP; and the best hands and defensive actions in the Yankee system. Cabrera did not make Fangraphs' Top-100 Prospects list in either 2021 or 2022, however ZiPS' statistical modeling pegged Cabrera as the 90th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2022 season.
While that might sound like an underwhelming combination, Cabrera's floor looks something like a good super-utility player, while his ceiling is that of a good regular at multiple positions. I have long ranked Cabrera higher (dating back to 2020) in Yankee prospect rankings than other people, and I really liked his toolbox, particularly as he developed last year. I opined prior to this season that Cabrera could make an impact on this team as soon as mid-year. An injury got in the way, but an August call-up puts me pretty close to right.
I wanted to write a bit about Cabrera's projection prior to his first game, but my obligations at home got in the way. I'll give the CliffsNotes version now. Cabrera is the type of prospect who might get eaten alive by offspeed stuff initially, which will impede his ability to tap into his solid raw power consistently, though I still expect that he'll still work at-bats and make hard contact. While the probability is low that Cabrera can hit his ceiling at the plate this season at the big league level, he does have upside at the plate. Cabrera's true value currently lies in his ability to play good defense all over the field, bringing rare versatility to a single roster spot. I like Cabrera's defense quite a bit more than publicly available scouting reports, having watched enough Scranton-Wilkes Barre games this season to see Cabrera's actions at multiple positions in the infield (I never saw him play the outfield prior to his first MLB action). I also really like that Cabrera consistently plays the game with energy, and while that can be a deceiving attribute that's tough to truly pin down in a minor league setting, I liked what I saw of Cabrera at AAA.
Unlike Estevan Florial, Cabrera has played everyday since his call-up. To this point, Cabrera has not hit consistently, batting .166/.222/.200 in a small sample size. Cabrera has stroked a few balls reasonably hard, with an above-average 89.5 MPH Exit Velocity, but by and large, he's been overmatched with 9 strikeouts in 27 plate appearances (33.3% BB%). Evidence of this fact was seemingly gathered in the last game of the Toronto series when in the 7th inning, Cabrera struck out on 3 straight change-ups low and away from Trevor Richards. However, that's not the end of the story. Cabrera showed growth from that experience on Tuesday night in the midst of the Yankees' final game against the Mets, a high-pressure situation even before we consider the fact that Cabrera stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Cabrera fell behind 1-2 against Taijuan Walker, and I was sure Cabrera would be put away on a splitter low and out of the zone, a Walker trademark. Instead, Cabrera fouled off a low splitter prior to working the count back to full. By now, we all know the result of the at-bat:
That was a veteran at-bat in a huge spot. While it's just one at-bat, I'm more impressed by that walk than I would have been by a homer on a pitch hanging in the zone. It showed that Cabrera can learn from previous experience, and could even be expected to improve at the plate this season.
I have been even more impressed by Cabrera's play in the field. Cabrera has shown that he is capable of admirably filling in at 2B, SS, 3B, and even RF. Cabrera's arm looks as though it was undersold, as it looks closer to a 55 arm than a 50 arm, which means it plays on the left side of the infield, and makes him a legitimate option in the outfield. Cabrera has made no shortage of excellent plays defensively thus far in just a week of play. This is just a sample:
You get the idea. In all, Statcast credits Cabrera with 4% of plays made above expected results, which would make him a plus-plus defender over a full season's worth of chances, and that passes the eye test. In fact, I can only think of one play that could be considered a black mark on his current MLB resume:
I thought this play was interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, it was not Cabrera's fault. While many will note that it is the outfielder's ball to call, Cabrera very loudly called for it while right fielder Marwin Gonzalez was barely moving his mouth on the replays seen on YES Network (I was unable to find the clips to show). Secondly, I was fascinated by the person in right: Marwin Gonzalez. Gonzalez has offered little in the way of value to the Yankees this season other than with his defensive versatility, professional experience as a member of two Astros teams that reached the World Series, and "veteran presence" that broadcasters love to bring up. I have long disliked Gonzalez's fit on this roster, but this play combined with Cabrera's play throughout his call-up have brought to light a fairly obvious point, in my opinion: once the roster crunch occurs at the end of the week, there is no way Gonzalez should make the roster over Oswaldo Cabrera, unless the roster expansion in September allows the team to keep both guys. More to the point: I would take Cabrera on the postseason roster over Gonzalez.
We talk a lot about prospects being prospects until proven otherwise. I think Oswaldo Cabrera is ready to contribute on a regular basis on a championship caliber team, as proven by his play, even if the surface numbers don't necessarily indicate it yet.