Primarily a shortstop in Cleveland, Cabrera will play second base and allow Anthony Rendon to play third with Zimmerman on the disabled list with a small tear in his right hamstring. Cabrera’s addition will move Danny Espinosa, an exceptional fielder who has struggled at the plate in recent seasons, back to a bench role.
“With a healthy Zim, we certainly wouldn’t have found the need to go out and acquire a player as skillful as Cabrera,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We like the team that we have. When Zim went down, to protect ourselves, we felt we should go out and get ourselves a good veteran to fit into the lineup.”
The Indians agreed to pay the remainder of the final year of Cabrera’s contract – roughly $3 million – to complete the trade an hour prior to Thursday’s 4 p.m. deadline. The financial concession may have been necessary for the Nationals. On opening day, principal owner Mark Lerner said the Nationals were “beyond topped out” with a payroll of roughly $135 million. Lerner declined comment Thursday.
The Nationals and Indians began exchanging names about a possible trade three days ago, Rizzo said. The Nationals also spoke with the New York Mets earlier Thursday about second baseman Daniel Murphy, according to a person familiar with the talks. Those discussions failed to gain traction, and the Nationals focused on Cabrera, who will be a free agent after this season.
“We’ve had many, many conversations with many, many teams about many, many subjects,” Rizzo said. “This is the one deal that made the right sense for us.”
Manager Matt Williams called Cabrera, 28, an “everyday player” whom they will play the “majority” of the time at second base. He said Cabrera could also spell Ian Desmond at shortstop if necessary.
“He’s a guy that’s been in pennant races,” Williams said. “He understands that. He understands the pressures of this time of year and getting where you want to go.”
Williams will determine Cabrera’s spot in the batting lineup based on daily circumstances, such as match-ups and what other hitters may be out of the lineup. Cabrera’s ability to switch-hit gives the Nationals’ flexibility in Williams’s view.
“I certainly like Anthony” hitting second, Williams said. “There’s options there, though, with the ability the switch-hit in the two hole. On any given day, we can shoot Anthony to the five hole if we need to. I think there’s flexibility all over there.”
An all-star in 2011 and 2012, Cabrera is hitting .246/.305/.386 with nine homers. He has reached more often (.316 on-base percentage) from the left side of the plate, and he’s hit for more power (slugging .400) from the right side. Cabrera hasn’t played second base since 2009, but he has played 162 games there in his career. Scouts rave about his quick hands, technical footwork and strong arm.
“He’s battle-tested,” Rizzo said. “He’s been in playoff races. He’s a terrific two-way player. He’s a great defensive middle infielder. He’s been a terrific shortstop defensively. He’s very balanced from both sides of the plate – just a big league hitter.”
The Nationals had said they would be willing to rely on Espinosa, who has started 78 games, down the stretch. Instead, he will head back to the bench. Williams met with Espinosa before the trade was finalized to explain the team’s thinking. If Espinosa held any bitter feelings about Cabrera’s arrival, he hid them well.
“If he can help us win and push to the playoffs and the World Series, that’s great,” Espinosa said. “That’s the role that I’ve been asked to do. I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”
Cabrera will man second base until Zimmerman returns, which may not be until the end of the regular season. Zimmerman stood by first base as the Nationals took batting practice, but he will not be able to test his torn right hamstring until next week. Zimmerman said it was too soon to know for sure how long he will miss, but “it’s not going to be next week.” It would be a surprise if Zimmerman returns before mid-September.
Walters, 24, hit .205 with a .741 OPS in 43 big league plate appearances this season. He’s hit 44 homers at Class AAA over the past two seasons, but he’s been inconsistent making contact. He is an athletic, though sometimes erratic, fielder. The Nationals acquired Walters at the 2011 trade deadline from the Arizona Diamondbacks for right-handed pitcher Jason Marquis, and three years later he turned into a player who may help them to a pennant.
“We [acquired] him as a young, A-ball player that was kind of unproven,” Rizzo said. “But our scouts recognized something in him. He’s a player that has some tools and some athleticism and has shown power from both sides of the plate.
“If there’s one thing we’ve shown here, it’s that there’s no small trade. All the trades are important to us. They can be characterized at the time you make them as a small deal. Sometimes, small deals turn into gold.”
The Nationals tried to make more than one trade Thursday, according to a person familiar with the Nationals’ dealings. In the weeks leading up to the deadline, the Nationals focused on adding a relief pitcher. They made several offers to teams for a handful of relievers in the final minutes. They would have landed one, the person said, but they did not want to part with Class AAA Syracuse outfielder Steven Souza.
Cabrera will join the Nationals for Friday night’s game. With Walters off to Cleveland, the Nationals recalled Blake Treinen from Class AAA Syracuse to give them an extra relief arm Thursday night.
The Nationals started Thursday 1 1/2 games ahead of the Braves, at a point in their season when every win may prove the difference between a division title and a missed chance. They hope what Cabrera gives them compared to Espinosa can provide it.
“He’s a welcome addition for us,” Williams said. “We’ll plug him right in as soon as we can get him here.”
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