Mike Rizzo is smart enough to know holes in the roster are the most dangerous things for a pennant contender to have. Throughout most the 2013 season, the Nationals had holes at second base (with Danny Espinosa’s poor season), catcher (with Kurt Suzuki’s poor season) and outfield (with the inability to find a replacement for Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper, who both spent time on the disabled list).
Now that the Nationals are entering the home stretch of the 2014 season with the narrowest of division leads, they cannot go into it with a hole in their roster.
So the Nationals traded 24 year-old infielder Zach Walters to the Indians for 28 year-old former All-Star Asdrubal Cabrera.
Cabrera is just a rental, since he will be eligible for free agency after the season. But it was a rental the Nationals needed to make. Ryan Zimmerman is likely out for the regular season, which means Anthony Rendon will play at third base full time. This leaves second base open with few options on the Nationals roster to fill it.
Last season’s opening day starter Danny Espinosa cannot be counted on to provide the offense necessary for the Nationals to score enough runs to win the division. Despite being a switch hitter, Espinosa is batting .186 with a .245 OBP and .296 SLG in 216 plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Espinosa is batting much better against left-handed pitchers (.295/.375/.474), but since two thirds of his at bats promise to come from the left-side, he cannot be dependable as a full-time player.
Mike Rizzo obviously felt there were no other options on the roster to play 2B. Kevin Frandsen is close to worthless. Zach Walters was the only other option to play second base, but Rizzo probably had doubts about his ability to make consistent contact. Walter had 16 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances in limited action this season. His strikeout rates in the minors were equally high. Rizzo also places a premium on defense. He likely didn’t feel Walters had enough experience or skill to man second base the majority of the Nats’ remaining 2014 innings.
Personally, I was hoping for Matt Williams to platoon Espinosa and Walters, with them alternating against lefties and righties, respectively. Espinosa provides great value from the right side and Walters deserved a chance to prove himself based on his unbelievable numbers in AAA this season (.300/.358/.608). This past week would have been an ideal time to give Walters a tryout instead of wasting at bats on Frandsen and Espinosa from the left side.
But Rizzo probably felt he didn’t have time to waste on a Walters experiment. Players traded after today must go through waivers, so this might be the last chance to upgrade the roster. In Cabrera, Rizzo is getting a proven commodity. Cabrera’s best seasons were 2011 and ’12 when he got on base at a .332 and .338 clip, with the ability to hit for extra bases. In 2011, he had 60 extra base hits.
In Walters, Rizzo is not giving up a cornerstone of the future. In my Red Porch Report Trade Rankings, I ranked Walters as the 32nd most valuable player in the Nationals system. Despite his good AAA numbers, his high strikeout rates indicated that his upside was limited as a major league player.
Rizzo probably felt a combo of Espinosa/Walters was too risky. The Nationals are not a lineup constructed to allow holes in the lineup. There is no Miguel Cabrera or Nelson Cruz on this team. The Nationals are constructed with a high number of above average hitters with no superstars. They score runs by keeping the train moving. With a hole in the lineup, that train gets derailed. Too many automatic outs in 2013 killed the Nats playoff hopes. Rizzo wasn’t going to let that happen again.