It didn't have the star power or 'wow' factor of some of the other trades of this year's July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but the exchange of switch hitting infielders between the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Nationalsis nonetheless one that could provide a positive change in the complexion of both teams in the short term.
Indians acquire IF Zach Walters in exchange for IF Asdrubal Cabrera
From the Indians perspective, they are acquiring a young, athletic infielder who displays a ton of power, but whose ultimate defensive position remains unclear. Hitting at a 'career' .347 wOBA in 52 MLB plate appearances, Walters has flashed the power that has seen him hit 44 home runs over the last season and a half at the AAA level (over 782 PA), but not much else. With the Nationals, Walters hit at a .234/.308/.489 slash line, with a 9.6% walk rate to go along with a 30.8% strikeout rate and a 14.6% swinging strike rate, indicative of his aggressive tendencies that help from a power perspective, but hinder his overall ability to get on base. Originally groomed as a shortstop, he does display the athleticism and strong arm desired from the position. It's this athleticism that has also seen him play at third base, second base, and in left field for the Nationals, as he does not display the range required for him to stick at shortstop long term.
In Cleveland, Walters, in some ways, is exchanging one crowded infield situation for another. In D.C., he bided his time behind the likes of Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon, and Danny Espinosa, seeing most of his playing time only after Ryan Zimmerman went down with thumb and hamstring injuries, requiring some shuffling of the infield. In Cleveland, his ultimate role and amount of playing time appears to be tied with how the team handles the inevitable call up of prospect Francisco Lindor, but for now, he should be able to wrestle some PA and innings away from the likes of Mike Aviles and Jose Ramirez, getting reps at shortstop as well as backing up Jason Kipnis and second base and perhaps Lonnie Chisenhall at third.
For the Nationals, Cabrera should be an immediate offensive upgrade, despite a somewhat disappointing season with the stick. 2014 has seen Cabrera hit at a .306 wOBA, about 20 points lower than his career average, while also suffering some erosion of his bat-to-ball skills, reflected in his drops in contact rates and concomitant rise in strikeout and swinging strike rates over the last season and a half. Also troubling is a slight drop in his power numbers this year, hitting at a .140 ISO after two seasons of .150-plus ISO. Some of these concerns can be explained by some nagging injuries, with Cabrera missing time due to back spasms and leg injuries.
These concerns surrounding Cabrera should be quickly allayed with the expected move over to second base, a position he has played before at the MLB level, most recently in 2009. The move to a somewhat less demanding position should help Cabrera return to some of his previous levels of production, as it gives his lower half less pounding, which should, in turn, keep his legs fresher and provide better swings and overall approach at the plate. This injection of infield offense for the Nationals, while desperately needed given the concerns of a timely return of Zimmerman from his latest injury, will come at the cost of some defensive skill, as Cabrera is nowhere close to being a peer of Espinosa with the glove or arm. However, the slight drop in defense from second base shouldn't be too troubling for the Nationals, who boast significant infield defensive prowess. The move also gives the bench a little more punch, with Espinosa and Kevin Frandsen being relied upon less to come in and provide starts and extended plate appearances.
While the longer-term ramifications of this trade remain up in the air—Walters' position and playing time, especially—the trade has provided both teams a short term boost to their rosters, with the deal for the Nationals particularly poignant, given their dalliance with first place in the National League East. It not only gives the Nationals a chance to run away with their division, but it also provides Walters an extended window of opportunity to prove his mettle on a more consistent basis, which could mean the difference between his career being one as an everyday player or a bench player with pop.
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Data courtesy of FanGraphs.