Everth Cabrera and middle infield sleepers

As a shortstop with 50 steal potential, one would think Everth Cabrera should draw a little more attention heading into draft season.  Despite leading the National League in steals last year with 44 and playing at fantasy’s weakest position, Cabrera is seen as more of an afterthought.  ESPN has Cabrera ranked as its 18th best SS, despite Cabrera finishing as the 16th best SS last year in just 115 games played.  Did I mention those 44 steals came in just 48 attempts?  Clearly Cabrera has his drawbacks, but that kind of speed at shortstop is hard to ignore.

Let’s start with what Cabrera does well.  He will take his walks, registering a 9.6% rate last year and was at 10.5% in 103 games in 2009, his first taste of the big leagues.  After leading the minors with 73 SB for Single A Ashville in 2008, he was selected by the Padres in the Rule V draft and jumped straight into full time action the following season as a 22-year-old.  Cabrera held his own, batting .255/.342/.361 in 103 games and went 25 for 33 on the base paths.

Unfortunately, Cabrera did not impress in 2010 in limited duty and did not receive another chance until 2012.  Overall there was slight regression across the board for Cabrera last season compared to 2009 and this was the result of his strikeout rate increasing from a near league average rate of 20.1% as a rookie to 24.5% last year.  In the minor leagues Cabrera has always been able to keep his K-rate below 20%, so there is potential upside for Cabrera to improve his contact, resulting in a higher batting average and more stolen base opportunities.

Looking at Cabrera’s batted ball profile last year, his numbers are exactly what one is looking for in a speedster.  He had an average line drive rate at 19.1% and a massive 60.7% ground ball rate.  While Cabrera’s BABIP was above league average at .336, his combination of  speed and worm-burning skills should increase that number moving forward.

Cabrera will not provide any power, but having a shortstop with league-leading stolen base potential is a nice depth option or middle infielder.  Some other options are Jean Segura, Andrelton Simmons and Josh Rutledge.  All three players were rookies last year and each brings a slightly different skill set to the table.

Segura has been more of a prospect darling during his time in the minors, ranking as the 55th and 57th best prospect in baseball each of the past two seasons by Baseball America.  Here is what BA had to say about Segura in the 2012 Prospect Handbook:

“His bat is lightning-quick, and he could consistently bat .290 with as many as 20 homers at his peak because he hits all types of pitches.”

While he likely won’t reach either of those numbers this year, he does have 30+ SB potential and will be the starting shortstop for the steal-happy Brewers.  A .280 batting average with 10 HR and 30 SB is not out of the question.

Andrelton Simmons has also ranked highly on Baseball America’s lists, but this was due more to his elite defensive abilities than offensive upside.  While Simmons does possess offensive tools, they are not as loud as Segura’s.  Simmons has just 6 total minor league home runs in 1042 PA, but also has 54 SB and a .299 batting average.  Right now ESPN has Simmons ranked 17th overall among shortstops, one spot ahead of Everth Cabrera and six spots ahead of Jean Segura.  After his high-profile WBC home run which helped the Netherlands eliminate Cuba, Simmons’ stock may be on the rise.  Here is Baseball America’s take on Simmons in last year’s Prospect Handbook:

“An aggressive hitter, Simmons knows the strike zone but doesn’t walk much.  He has bat speed and can turn on fastballs, but he won’t have more than gap power.  An average runner, he needs to improve his reads and jumps.”

Because of this, I would much rather have Segura or Cabrera, but if you can’t get your hands on them, go after Josh Rutledge or Simmons.

Josh Rutledge is the most hyped of the lower ranked SS options, but he still may be undervalued as a shortstop outside of our top 15.  Rutledge was not considered a top prospect heading into 2012, ranking 10th among Rockies prospects by Baseball America.  But when Troy Tulowitski went down with his annual injury, Rutledge took off with the opportunity hitting .381/.394/.683 with 3 HR and 3 SB in 63 July at bats.  The hot stretch continued through August as Rutledge added 4 HR and 2 SB to go along with a .317/.333/.598 line.  The wheels fell off in September though, as Rutledge limped to the finish line hitting .197/.248/.288 in 132 at bats.  His end of the season line of .274/.306/.469 seems pretty repeatable and he has a good chance to double his 8 HR and possibly reach 20+ SB as he was not caught stealing in any of his 7 attempts last year.  Here is what Baseball America had to say about Rutledge heading into 2012:

“Rutledge has outstanding hand-eye coordination and a compact stroke, albeit with some stiffness.  He takes a quick, flat path to the ball and uses the whole field…He has the tools to hit for a high average with at least gap power.  A solid runner, he can steal a few bases as well.”

A 3.1% walk rate compared to an 18.6% strikeout rate for Rutledge last year are scary numbers as far as his batting average projection goes, so there is a downside that he only ends up hitting .250 or lower in 2013.  Rutledge is penciled in as the starter at second base though, and should produce good counting stats playing half his games at Coors.  The worse case scenario for Rutledge actually looks a lot like what we should expect from the similarly skilled Danny Espinosa who ESPN ranks 9 spots higher in their SS rankings, and who is being drafted 144 spots higher at MDC.

Whether you’re looking for the raw speed of Everth Cabrera, the pop and SB upside of Jean Segura or the more balanced blend of 15/15 potential that Josh Rutledge brings to the table, each of these shortstop sleepers presents a nice upside play as your middle infielder.

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