This off-season didn't feature the most imposing crop of free agent shortstops.
Rafael Furcal played only 87 games last season and posted an 81 wRC+, and landed a 2-year deal worth $14 million from the Cardinals...who were mostly praised for the signing. And yet even in these waters, no one bit on 37 year-old Orlando Cabrera's chance to pull out of his increasingly steep decline.
EDIT: Apparently this is all a lie, Cabrera actually turned down a 1-year contract from the Atlanta Braves--holy crap, Atlanta, spend some money on a bat one of theses days, willya?--and hung up the cleats on his own terms. Maybe he's too heartbroken by the end of his insane playoff appearances streak to continue, maybe playing South of the Mason-Dixon line scares the bejeesus out of him, maybe 1985 games of scrapping around and busting his ass felt like enough. Maybe losing your touch isn't much fun. All I've got is maybes for this one now. The narrative where he stinks now and no one wants him was a lot more clear. Stupid Braves.
Is Orlando Cabrera a memorable White Sox? He doesn't seem like he should be one. He played one year, served a role well enough on a playoff team, albeit in a manner that was open to scrutiny and led to no pleas for his return. Mostly he's memorable for rubbing a remarkable number of people the wrong way in a short amount of time.
Enigmatic, that's the term. Orlando Cabrera was enigmatic to the point that I tracked his post-White Sox career habitually just to see if he was having the same peculiar effect on other franchises. He largely didn't, because Orlando Cabrera - Clubhouse Cancer was a pure product of the utter madness that was 2008; a year inwhich Carlos Quentin was an MVP, John Danks was an ace, the concept of team chemistry was banished to the realm of mythology, and Brian Anderson provided the signature moment of the season.
Cabrera was acquired in exchange for Jon Garland in the rarely-seen swap of a reliable starter for an aging shortstop. Because of that basic principle, and Garland being long-tenured, the trade was met with a fair amount of derision, even though Cabrera was coming off a banner year where he won a gold glove and--albeit not particularly deservingly--garnered MVP votes.
In some retrospective sense, the move was an improbable stroke of brilliance. The White Sox' bet that Floyd and Danks were ready to step in the rotation paid off in spades, Joe Crede's back began the slow process of ending his career in the 2nd half, Josh Fields' slide into uselessness began, and Cabrera's steady presence at short allowed the Sox to shift Juan Uribe around as needed.
For his part, Garland never was a top-end starter again, raising questions about whether the White Sox perfectly anticipated his decline, or Don Cooper got more out of him than could ever otherwise be expected, or both. Seriously, how the hell was Jon Garland an effective pitcher? He had Buehrle-level strikeout rates, gave up piles of home runs, and just happened to snap into a stretch of excellent control from 2005-06.
Meanwhile, Cabrera's performance was exactly the sort of steady that fails to garner notice or praise. He managed an average OBP with little power, and while no defensive metric loved him the way UZR did, there was a consensus that he remained a perfectly adequate fielder at short. That's a useful player, but he was miscast as a leadoff hitter. It's not like the 2008 roster was loaded with obvious alternatives after Swisher's batting average tanked, but 730 plate appearances put a real spotlight on Cabrera's shortcomings.
On a persona level, he was far weirder. At the beginning of May, Cabrera became involved in a bizarre incident where he called an official scorer multiple times to change the ruling on errors he was charged with, and by the end of the month, was at odds with Ozzie Guillen of all people--traditionally a veteranophile and player's manager to a fault--for not sticking up for him.
"If it happens again, I will call again," Cabrera said. "I don't have to do it with other teams because they always had my back. They don't want to do it here, I can take care of my own business."
In the wake of the incident, Cabrera was on the outs with Guillen, was virtually guaranteed to depart after 2008, and was regularly savaged by Joe Cowley of the Sun-Times, for reasons that are a lot more obvious now.
When Cabrera got into a dispute with Jermaine Dye for stealing third in the middle of a rally, it only enhanced the perception that he was a stat-hungry mercenary. It also raised questions like "Jermaine Dye? Visible emotions? Wha?" and "Was Cabrera really running more than an Ozzie Guillen team saw to be appropriate? Moreover, it was just confusingly unorthodox. Of all the players to visibily chafe over the course of the season, it's not the ignored youngster, the underpaid rising star, or the primadonna slugger, but the veteran, playoff-tested shortstop known for his grit and leadership? Playing for a manager who was essentially the same player in his day?
Cabrera was adrift from the rest of the clubhouse, but generally for being confusingly independent rather than actually being counter to the goals of the team. Whereas Swisher and Anderson fell out of favor for being perceived as wild and raucous kids, Cabrera warred against that culture from the polar opposite side.
An end of the year critque from OC on the White Sox tendency to capitulate to their rivals seemed to be building to a very salient point:
"The one thing we're missing, a team that wins so many ballgames is missing, is we don't come out every night as the winners. We come out hoping to win a ballgame. I don't think that's the right attitude."
"This is a team that has so many stars and so many good players. The other team should be afraid of facing us. We should show that face every night and win ballgames before they even start at 7 o'clock.''
But then it just spiraled into a rant of "KIDS THESE DAYS...":
''There are guys that want to be clowns or want to be funny or want to be this, but what I don't like is there's a time for that and a time to get serious in a ballgame, and I don't see that. ... You can have fun, but at the same time, you have to take care of business.''
A week or so later after his Taking Care of Business statement, Cabrera decided that the 7th inning of Game 1 of the Division Series, trailing 6-3 with 2 outs and the bases juiced, would be a good time to initiate an experiment in gamesmanship with Tampa reliever Grant Balfour. Cabrera cursed and spat at Balfour for nibbling with his first pitch; a curious tact for someone never known for their bat speed to take against a guy capable of throwing 95mph.
Like all great experiments, it backfired immediately. Balfour struck Cabrera out with an outside fastball on a full count.
On one hand, it might have exemplified the tough, confrontational attitude Cabrera complained was lacking on the franchise. On the other hand it was inexplicable, disastrous lunacy at one of the most crucial moments of the season. As such, the event may sum up Cabrera's tenure on the South Side better than anything; every time you tried to hone in on a level of understanding of Cabrera, he traipsed off into something more confusing.
After 3 more games, Cabrera's time on the White Sox was over, and he delivered the compensatory draft picks that probably made him just attractive enough to trade for in the first place. He's spent the last few years finding roster spots on contenders thanks to reputation and positional scarcity, but has really been in steady decline since 2008.
That year may ironically have been his last great hurrah, which is quite odd. Most do not ride off into the sunset bemoaning the disposition of their horse, but that was Cabrera. And by "that was Cabrera", I mean, who the hell knows what his deal is?
Tags: 2008 ALDS, baseball, Brian Anderson, Don Cooper, Gavin Floyd, grant balfour, jermaine dye, joe cowley, Joe Crede, John Danks, jon garland, Josh Fields, Juan Uribe, Mark Buehrle, nick swisher, Orlando Cabrera, Ozzie Guillen, tampa bay rays, White Sox