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Is Asdrubal Cabrera a Fit for St. Louis Cardinals?

Shortstop May Be Extra Piece From Contending Cleveland Indians at Deadline

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COMMENTARY | Over the winter, the St. Louis Cardinals were linked to every conceivably available shortstop in baseball, including Elvis Andrus, Jurickson Profar and even megastar Troy Tulowitzki.

A few pundits hoped J.J. Hardy of the Baltimore Orioles would become available if the Orioles' contending season in 2012 gave way to a disappointing reality in 2013, but Baltimore's success this summer means Hardy is staying put.

Asdrubal Cabrera, starting shortstop for the Cleveland Indians and often-discussed trade target for Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, may be a different story.

Is Cabrera Available?

When it comes to trade scenarios, the general rule of thumb is this: Contending teams acquire players (buy), and also-rans trade players (sell). So, why would a team just 1 1/2 games back of the AL Central division-leading Detroit Tigers look to move an All-Star shortstop midseason?

The simple answer is Colby Rasmus.

In 2011, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak held one of the most promising all-around players in the National League on a team that was preparing for a playoff run, but Rasmus struggled to put it all together and the team needed help. With Mozeliak's iron grip on a recently revamped package of minor-league prospects, getting that help became difficult.

Historically loathe to trade from the major-league roster, Mozeliak did just that when he sent the Rasmus enigma to the Toronto Blue Jays for a group of players that included relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski. The result was a 2011 World Series championship -- in which both Dotel and Rzepczynski played key roles -- and an Executive of the Year Award for Mozeliak.

Cabrera may present a similar situation. No, he's not a so-called "clubhouse cancer," and he's not a major piece of Cleveland's future plans -- with free agency right around the corner, the Indians look to supplant his high-priced talent with more cost-effective options -- but he is a coveted asset on a Cleveland team with playoff hopes. Using him as a trade chip could net a player or two critical to a postseason run.

And much like the Cardinals of 2011 had Jon Jay to assume the center field duties in Rasmus' absence, the Indians could look to Mike Aviles -- the infielder outhitting Cabrera -- to fill the SS hole for the rest of the season.

An Offensive Upgrade

After an impressive first couple of months at the plate, current Redbirds shortstop Pete Kozma's bat has withered. His .233/.278/.293 line with one home run has been in steady free-fall since June, and even a mysterious .338 batting average with runners in scoring position hasn't been enough to keep him in the lineup every day.

Cabrera, on the other hand, has a history of offensive excellence.

In 2012, the Indians shortstop posted the fifth-best OPS (.762) among all MLB shortstops. His .270 batting average (No. 8 in MLB), .338 OBP (No. 6) and .423 SLG (No. 8) all rank among the top 10 for major-league shortstops, and his solid 16 home runs (No. 6) were enough to prove his 25 home runs the year before in 51 more plate appearances was no one-hit wonder. Despite missing a month of the season with a leg muscle injury, his .255/.315/.421 line with seven home runs in 2013 looks to be working toward more of the same.

In short, Asdrubal Cabrera would be a clear offensive upgrade for the Cardinals' infield.

The Wizard of Koz

When Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and GM John Mozeliak refer to Kozma's contributions in 2013, they're primarily referring to the infielder's defensive stability. His 273 assists is the third highest mark among all shortstops in baseball, and his .989 fielding percentage is tied for first. Cabrera, by comparison, has a .988 fielding percentage with three errors to Kozma's four (Cabrera has also played 19 fewer games than Kozma). At a glance, the two defenders would appear to be a wash.

But most of us know by now that errors and fielding percentage don't tell the whole story. To get a more complete picture of a fielder's impact, we turn to metrics designed to measure a fielder's range and runs saved. And in those categories, there is no contest.

According to Fangraphs, Kozma's ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 7.1 is fourth-best among MLB shortstops, and his defensive runs saved (DRS) stands at six, again good enough for fourth-best. On the same list, Cabrera's 2013 UZR currently stands at minus -5.2 (No. 20) with a minus -5 DRS (No. 19).

Of course, there are those among you that would point to Cabrera's time on the disabled list this season, and maybe even claim the partial 2013 campaign screams small sample size. But Cabrera's 2012 UZR of minus -7.7 (No. 18 among MLB shortstops) and DSR of minus -5 (No. 17) suggests his defensive inferiority to Pete Kozma is no fluke.

While Cabrera is clearly the better offensive player, The Wizard of Koz is far and away the better defensive option -- at least through the month of July.

Asdrubal or Kozma-nia?

Matheny's claims of defense first at shortstop are about to be put to the test. For months, he and Mozeliak consistently stated "this offense" can carry a shortstop hitting less than .300, assuming that shortstop is getting the job done in the field. Kozma is doing just that, but his fading bat has still landed him on the bench in favor of Daniel Descalso, a makeshift backup shortstop struggling to find his defensive form in 2013.

But Descalso is hitting.

If the Redbirds change course and side with a trade chip's offensive upside -- like Asdrubal Cabrera -- then they have to decide if the cost is worth it. Not only will Cabrera earn $10 million in 2014 -- a salary that could prove restrictive to a club considering re-signing All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran -- but the Indians also will likely demand impact-level, major-league ready pitching in return, something the Cardinals also covet at the deadline.

Assuming more of the same from both players in the second half, Mozeliak has a difficult decision to make by the deadline.

Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).

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