The new infielder arrived at Nationals Park on Friday afternoon and headed straight into the coaches’ office next to the clubhouse. Asdrubal Cabrera shook hands with each of the coaches and Manager Matt Williams. He told them all he was ready to play and eager to join the Washington Nationals. Williams inserted his name into the lineup against the Philadelphia Phillies, batting seventh and starting at second base.
The day before, while in Cleveland and in the trainer’s room, Cabrera was called into the manager’s office by Terry Francona and told he had been traded to Washington. For several years, and especially in the final season of his current contract, Cabrera had a feeling he could be dealt. And now, sitting in the Nationals’ clubhouse, jumping from a team fighting to reach .500 to a team in first place, Cabrera was thrilled for his new opportunity.
“That make me get excited,” he said. “A team like this one, the Nationals, are in first place and you want to play with them. That makes me feel good.”
With Ryan Zimmerman out for a significant amount of time with a hamstring injury and Danny Espinosa again struggling offensively, the Nationals acquired Cabrera to shore up the right side of their infield. The deal cost them Class AAA infielder Zach Walters, but Cleveland agreed to pay the remainder of Cabrera’s contract.
“We’re excited to have him,” Williams said.
An all-star in 2011 and 2012, Cabrera, 28, is expected to be the everyday second baseman for the remainder of the season. Nationals second basemen have posted a collective .663 on-base plus slugging percentage, ranking 19th in the majors. Espinosa plays exceptional defense but has a .221 batting average with a .287 on-base percentage and a .354 slugging percentage and 101 strikeouts. Cabrera owned a career .270/.331/.410 line before going hitless in four at-bats in his Nationals debut.
Cabrera, a switch hitter like Espinosa, was in the midst of his second straight down season before his trade, hitting just .246 with nine home runs and 40 RBI. Although he will have to adjust to a new team and a new league the Nationals hope a change of scenery could help. During his two-year all-star span, he averaged 20.5 home runs and 80 RBI. He also brings pennant race and playoff experience, having played in the 2007 and 2013 postseasons.
“I’m just going to do my thing,” Cabrera said. “I’m going to do my best to help the team play hard and help the team win. . . . I’m just coming to play baseball. It’s the same baseball.”
Cabrera first took the trade news hard even though he said Indians officials had warned him before he could be moved. The Venezuela native has been in the Indians organization since 2006 and broke into the major leagues with them in 2007.
“When you play so many seasons with one team, for the first five, 10 minutes you don’t feel good,” he said. “That’s the business. That’s baseball. Now I’m here. I’m really happy to be here. I’ll do my thing.”
Cabrera will have to adjust to going back to second base, something he hasn’t done full-time since 2008. He has been mostly a shortstop with Cleveland, with only 162 major league games at second.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “That was the position I played when I got called up by Cleveland. I played second for two years there. I’m pretty comfortable.”
Mark Weidemaier, the Nationals’ defensive coordinator, was with the Los Angeles Dodgers and scouted Cabrera when he first broke into the majors. Cabrera spent his first two seasons primarily at second base with the Indians while Jhonny Peralta handled shortstop.
“I thought he was one of the best second basemen I’d seen,” Weidemaier said. “He was unbelievable.”
Before Friday’s game, Weidemaier hit Cabrera groundballs and came away impressed again, believing Cabrera would have no issue with the switch. “It’s just like riding a bike,” Weidemaier said.
Cabrera has a few tenuous connections to the Nationals. Cabrera faced Nationals starter Doug Fister often in the American League Central when Fister was on the Detroit Tigers. He played against the Minnesota Twins and Denard Span when Span was there earlier in his career.
“He was one of the guys we targeted and had to play a certain way because he was their best player for a long time,” Span said. “He’s just a guy that can beat you in so many ways. When he gets hot, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He can hit for average, drive in runs, guys in scoring position. He’s dangerous, and defensively he’s always been good.”
Three years ago, he played with catcher Jose Lobaton on the Leones del Caracas in the Venezuelan winter league. “Nice guy,” Lobaton said.
When Cabrera first introduced himself to Williams, he had one concern. His 7-year-old son, Meyer, was upset. He often hung out in the clubhouse in Cleveland and took grounders before games. Even after Cabrera was told he was traded, Meyer still did his normal pregame routine on the field in an Indians uniform. Meyer was worried he couldn’t hang out in the new clubhouse.
“We’ve certainly invited his son in when he gets here [Saturday] and [to] come in our clubhouse and outfit him with all the new garb,” Williams said.
Before Friday’s game, Cabrera said he yet to tell his son the news.
“Now that I’m here, I will call him,” Cabrera said. “He’s the one that’s worried what happened. He’s going to be happy.”