The Orioles are nearing a one year agreement with Everth Cabrera that will pay him $2.4 million for the 2015 season. The Orioles are almost certain to use the former Padre in one of several capacities:
(a) Employ him as the backup infielder which would likely result in Ryan Flaherty beginning the season at AAA Norfolk;
(b) Option Cabrera to Norfolk (he has one minor league option remaining) and pay him to be a depth player in the event Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Flaherty or J.J. Hardy are injured OR someone underperforms; or
(c) Shuffle between Flaherty and Cabrera at second base to start the season while Schoop undergoes additional seasoning in AAA.
Of those three options, “C” seems to be the least likely. If the Orioles were concerned about Schoop’s ability to handle second base next season, they likely would have been more aggressive in bringing in finding a second baseman earlier in the winter. At the very least, we probably would have heard some second basemen’s names attached to the O’ beyond Rey Navarro. In addition, Cabrera is not even a second baseman by trade. All signs point to Cabrera being depth (either on the bench or in AAA) to begin the season, rather than a starter.
From the talk I have heard and comments that I have read, it seems most people are rightfully dismissing the notion that Cabrera will displace Schoop at second base. That leaves either backup infielder on the 25-man roster or minor league depth as the likely landing spot. A significant number of comments I have read/heard make the assumption that the Orioles will not pay $2.4 million to someone to play in AAA. Very few teams would be willing to do that and teams with similar budget constraints that the Orioles have would be even more unlikely to pay a significant salary to a minor league player. If Cabrera does get a $2.4 million contract, that figure would represent roughly 2% of the Orioles’ total budgeted payroll.
However, it would be a mistake to outright dismiss the notion that the Orioles will do just that.
For one, there is some amount of precedent. Ryan Webb earned $1.8 million last season but was still optioned to Norfolk for the month of August. Francisco Peguero was given a $600k major league salary and never spent one day in Baltimore before being released last season. Nolan Reimold was signed to a $1 million contract and released mid-season without ever being recalled. The Orioles could not option Ubaldo Jimenez to the minors but did everything they could to hide him including a one month DL stint and another month of being buried deep in the bullpen. It seems clear that if the O’s could have optioned Ubaldo (ie. if he had options remaining and could be sent down without his consent), they surely would have despite his large salary.
The best example of why the Orioles might not be afraid to option Cabrera if they feel that is the best course of action is Suk Min Yoon. The Korean right-handed signed a three year contract with Baltimore last winter. He made $750k in 2014 while pitching exclusively in the minor leagues. This upcoming season, he will earn almost $2 million. Despite his significant salary, Yoon did not receive an invite to major league spring training and because he is not on the 40-man roster, he will have his work cut out for him if he wants to get a mid-season call up.
If the organization is willing to pay $2 million to Yoon to pitch in Norfolk with slim odds that he will pitch in Baltimore next summer, is it really that crazy that they would pay Cabrera $2.4 million to wait in Norfolk in case of an injury to or under-performance by a middle infielder?
It is also important to keep in mind that Dan Duquette constructs his rosters differently than the average MLB general manager. He places a large importance on depth and flexibility. The “shuttle to Norfolk” has become a much used phrase around these parts because of the organization’s tendency and willingness to bring players up and down as necessary. I acknowledge that the average GM would see much better uses of $2.4 million than on a AAA infielder, but Duquette has proven he places a higher premium on depth than most of his peers. If Duquette spends more energy and effort on depth than the average GM, it stands to reason he would be willing to spend more money on a pure depth player as well assuming that player has significant upside (which Cabrera certainly does). Duquette’s style has been to get as many quality players as possible and let everything shake out, rather than putting all of his eggs in the same 20 – 25 baskets.
Cabrera is a shortstop who will seemingly attempt to play some second base. One of the biggest injury risks on the projected 25-man roster – if not the biggest injury risk – is J.J. Hardy. Manny Machado is likely in the top three of that unfortunate list as well. Given that, it is perfectly reasonable to fill up on as much quality middle infield depth as possible. Cabrera could fill in directly for Hardy if needed. In the case of a Machado DL stint, Cabrera could fill the major league backup infielder role while Ryan Flaherty shifts to third base. In addition, while I am sure the organization expects marked offensive improvement from Jonathan Schoop in 2015, it is not a guarantee by any means. Schoop might have the lowest floor on the team from an offensive standpoint which could provide the Orioles with additional incentive to stack up on quality middle infield depth. Given those concerns, if there is any player the organization would be willing to pay $2.4 million to play at AAA, it would be a middle infielder.
It goes without saying that Duquette and the organization as a whole would prefer to pay Cabrera $2.4 million to be a quality major league infielder than to pay him the same to play at AAA. As outlined above, however, there are plenty of reasons to suggest they will make the decision that is best for the team. I honestly do not believe that Cabrera’s salary will dictate where he begins the season. He might very well end up as the opening day utility infielder, but it will most certainly be because the team feels he is the best player for the job.