“People think it’s going to be easy to play first because you just take the throw,” Cabrera said. “But I don’t think it’s that easy.”
Yet Cabrera understood his role. The Texas Rangers had designated the utility player for assignment days earlier, and before the Nationals officially signed him, Martinez called. The manager stressed he needed a sure glove capable of playing multiple positions. Cabrera was in; he wanted to play “no matter what.” He got a first baseman’s mitt.
The Nationals will play in Tuesday’s National League wild-card game in no small part due to the flexibility of their bench veterans, and their double-switch potential increases the organization’s options for the 25-man roster. Howie Kendrick, Gerardo Parra and “El Cabby” have played all over the diamond, even at positions they’re not necessarily comfortable with, to spell a taxed teammate or stopgap a hole left by injury. They have delivered timely hits and steady gloves, and the coaching staff credits the team’s versatility as a key marginal advantage.
“You look at the teams that are really pushing [for the postseason] right now and making it, they can put numerous people in numerous positions,” bench coach Chip Hale said last week. “It’s really huge.”
The trio started in primarily one position — Parra in left field, Kendrick at second and Cabrera at short — but as the games piled up, as their bodies stopped being so cooperative, they were forced to confront reality. They all want to be the everyday players they once were but understand it’s impossible. So they evolved.
Cabrera started playing shortstop when he was 4 years old. His mother, Zunilde, played softball and taught Cabrera’s older brother to throw the ball against the wall of their home in a small port city in northern Venezuela. Cabrera watched the ball hit the wall over and over and, soon enough, began the practice himself.
The kid looked up to Omar Vizquel, a fellow Venezuelan shortstop who had made it to the majors in 1989, and Cabrera later made a deal with his father that he would leave school for one year to try professional baseball. The teenager unwittingly emulated his idol. He and Vizquel had both signed with the Seattle Mariners, climbed the system and got traded to the Cleveland Indians. Cabrera debuted in 2007 and wore No. 13, a hallowed number among Venezuelan shortstops.
He spent eight seasons with the Indians, peaking in the early 2010s when he was a two-time all-star, and got traded to the Nationals at the trade deadline in 2014. His new team had a shortstop, Ian Desmond, so Cabrera shifted to second. The switch became permanent three seasons later when New York Mets brass told him the team had a hot prospect named Amed Rosario coming to the majors. Cabrera understood. He saw the new generation of shortstops rising to the majors, and he experienced the range he once had faltering.
Cabrera didn’t mind the swap because he was the Mets’ everyday second baseman for the rest of 2017 and the start of 2018. He settled into an everyday rhythm and provided steady defense while maintaining his contributions at the plate with an on-base-plus-slugging-percentage of about .825.
Then the Mets dealt him to the Philadelphia Phillies at the trade deadline, and everything went haywire. Cabrera was still an everyday player, but he started at shortstop for a week, played third for most of the next and ping-ponged back and forth for the next month. The unpredictability jarred Cabrera. His on-base percentage dropped 50 points. But he looked around baseball and saw versatility and availability were becoming “part of the business.” He realized that, even when he stopped being an everyday player, this skill set might keep him in the game.
“That's when I started to think to prepare my mind, my body to play any position,” he said.
The Rangers had their middle infield set, but they needed someone at the hot corner. They signed Cabrera, and he played every day. He still didn’t define himself as a utility player, but he knew this added another position to his repertoire.
“The more I play there the more I feel confident,” he said.
But the bat, his most redeeming tool, slipped. He hit .235, and the Rangers designated him for assignment. They replaced Cabrera with a young prospect and a utility veteran just like him. In early August, Cabrera signed with the Nationals.
His offense surged, and he would later claim the starting second baseman spot from Brian Dozier. But Cabrera first proved his value as a utility player. He had returned to the status he held when trying to break into the majors; his first major league appearance was at third base, and his first start was at second.
The 33-year-old’s days at shortstop seemed like a distant memory. Cabrera stood at his locker in the Nationals’ clubhouse and sighed. He admitted he can no longer play the position he still loves.
“Old age, it’s not easy,” he said. He pinched his stomach. “When I start playing in the big leagues, my weight was at 185 or something. I weigh 220, 218 right now. That makes a difference.”
Now Cabrera is a man without a position. He wants to stick around, so he plays wherever he’s needed, knowing he’s not the Nationals’ second baseman of the future. He navigated his first start at first base, in Chicago against the Cubs, without an error, and he has shown a knack for the position in his two appearances since.
Things are different there. The ball arrives much faster on the corners, but Cabrera credited his time at third in Texas for helping him adjust. He still finds the mechanics of the position challenging — little things such as the catch-and-tag of a pickoff or the timing of a toss to a pitcher running to cover first — but he’s enjoying the process. He’s adapting again.
“Shortstop was my favorite position, but I mean, everything is in the past,” Cabrera said. “I’m thinking about what’s going to happen now and tomorrow.”
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