In 2012, general manager Mike Rizzo made the infamous decision to sit down Stephen Strasburg to prevent any injuries following rehab from Tommy John’s surgery. The Washington Nationals eventually lost in the divisional round in heartbreaking fashion, and to this day, fans still accuse Rizzo of punting on Washington’s chance to make the World Series that season by sitting Strasburg.
This season, while no shut-downs are involved, Rizzo seems to be taking the opposite stance this season, by trading prospect Zach Walters to the Cleveland Indians for Asdrubal Cabrera.
The front office could have just as easily sat tight at the trade deadline, hoping that Ryan Zimmerman gets healthy in time for the playoffs, and roll with the offensively challenged Danny Espinosa at second base, while moving Anthony Rendon to third.
With this trade, the Nationals show the rest of the National League that they’re ready to make a push this season. This is a trade a contender makes, especially given the crowded lineup Washington already deals with. The rich get richer, and now have plenty of flexibility in the lineup and in the field.
While the division rival Atlanta Braves acquired Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell from the Chicago Cubs, the Nationals made a huge upgrade at second, assuring that Atlanta wouldn’t have a clear advantage heading in to the final three series between these two teams, which will presumably decide who wins the division.
Cabrera brings significantly more to the plate than Espinosa. His strikeout rate this season is 19 percent, while Espinosa’s is sky-high at 32.9 percent. Cabrera’s contact rate is also 15 percentage points higher and has 11 more extra-base hits than Espinosa. In Espinosa’s past 13 games when he had at least three plate appearances, he went hitless in seven of them. In the same stretch of 13 games, Cabrera had just three hitless games.
With Zimmerman out of the lineup, the Nationals are missing out on a guy who can get that go-to hit in the eighth or ninth inning when they’re down. If Espinosa were coming up to the plate in that situation, all Nats fans would let out a collective groan.
Cabrera certainly isn’t the best hitter in Washington now, but he at least gives the Nationals a chance in those situations. Espinosa doesn’t. The biggest loss in inserting Cabrera into the starting lineup over Espinosa is obviously defense, it’s what has kept Espinosa on the roster this year.
But Cabrera has a fielding percentage of .963 at shortstop for the Indians this season, per Fangraphs, while Espinosa’s was just slightly higher at .989. Cabrera does have 10 more errors this season than Espinosa, but the benefits of Cabrera’s bat over Espinosa’s completely outweigh what Espinosa brings in the field.
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Washington already has one of the best starting pitching rotations in the league, currently second in ERA in the National League, first in walks and eighth in opponent batting average. Tanner Roark has been a huge breakout starter this year, leading the team in wins, Strasburg leads the NL in strikeouts, and they have three guys — Roark, Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann — who are in the top 15 in the NL among starting pitchers in FIP, according to Fangraphs.
Come playoff time, the Nationals will already have a tough time deciding whether or not to shorten their rotation to four guys (a good problem to have). Now, they have another good problem on their hands once Ryan Zimmerman recovers from his hamstring injury (assuming they can escape any other injuries until then).
The Nationals finally have the bullpen, the starting rotation and now the lineup to contend. Yes, they’ve been wildly inconsistent this season. But trading for Cabrera shows that they’re serious about becoming more consistent down the stretch.
The Dodgers are still the favorite to make it out of the NL, but at least the Nationals are going for it, and even if it doesn’t pan out, fans at least need to be proud that Washington is willing to make these kinds of trades to be in the conversation.