Benuardo is no more. The Indians have traded Eduardo Perez, the righthanded half of their vaunted first base platoon, to the Seattle Mariners, receiving 20-year-old shortstop prospect Asdrubal Cabrera in return. Ryan Garko, one of the Indians' best hitting prospects over the last two seasons, has been promoted to the major league roster and stands to inherit Perez's playing time.
Signed out of Venezuela in 2002, Cabrera is considered a defensive wizard, and Baseball America named him the Mariners' sixth-best prospect to start the season. He's spent 2.5 seasons in the minors at shortstop and one at second base, dazzling scouts at both positions and always at or near the top in fielding percentage. The rushed development and position flips have been the result of a crowded picture in Seattle's middle infield; Cabrera has been progressing through the minors alongside fellow shortstop prospect Adam Jones, just four months older, and the Mariners signed Cuban defector Yuniesky Betancourt as a major-league shortstop in the offseason.
At age 17, Cabrera was an All-Star shortstop in the Venezuelan Summer League, and he made another All-Star team in the low-A Northwest League despite being the league's youngest starter at 18. While Cabrera's recent numbers suggest a weak bat, on any given day, only a handful of 20-year-olds are playing above Single-A, anywhere in the country. This season, Cabrera has been striking out once every four at bats, but at lower (more age-typical) levels, his peripherals were solid. Notably, he has maintained a .10 walk rate since the start of 2005, even as he was promoted four levels in one year. Cabrera becomes the youngest player on the Buffalo roster by more than two years, and one of only three Bisons under 25.
The Indians have been painfully bereft of solid middle-infield prospects since Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Phillips ascended to the majors. Acquiring Cabrera addresses this problem but also seems rather pointedly aimed at the Indians' infield defense issues. That said, it seems unlikely the Indians would deem Cabrera a solid contender for a starting job in 2007; he seems unfinished. That said, the Indians face several middle infield problems for 2007 -- including Ron Belliard's likely departure and Peralta's newfound defensive yips -- and Cabrera might reasonably solve any number of them.
The Indians first base platoon plan, with the inconsistent Ben Broussard facing righthanders and the veteran Perez facing the rest, was one of the few things that went right in a season that can fairly be called a disaster. Broussard seemed to thrive with a renewed focus, and the players combined for what was collectively, for most of the season, the best first base offensive attack in the league. With this season's playoff hopes suffering a shockingly early demise, Shapiro characteristically struck early in the midseason trade market, cashing in a veteran chip likely at its highest point of value. Perez, who will turn 37 in two months, is making $1.7 million this season, and his contract includes a club option for 2007 for similar dollars. As a part-time player, Perez is unlikely to earn his team any compensatory draft picks as a departing free agent.
Scouts have considered Garko to be a slam-dunk hitting prospect since he was drafted in 2002 out of Stanford, where he caught for fellow Tribe prospect Jeremy Guthrie. His bat and makeup have never been questioned, but his defense and athleticism have always been suspect. In 2004, Victor Martinez established himself as an elite-hitting major league catcher while Garko established himself as an elite hitting prospect. By mid-2005, Broussard had established himself as inconsistent and prospect Michael Aubrey had established himself on the Disabled List. Garko's conversion to first base thus became a very obvious move, and Garko reportedly took to it with gusto as the 2005 season rolled to a close.
This season in Buffalo, Garko's bat has looked more listless, producing a meager .255 average to go with his usual solid walk rates and power numbers. Only yesterday, Garko was quoted talking wistfully about his days as a catcher. One can hardly fault him for a lack of fire this season, after watching in the offseason as the Indians elected to give Broussard one more try while also signing the righthanded Perez and acquiring righthanded catcher prospect Kelly Shoppach -- and two other veteran backups to boot. Garko was widely considered a quality prospect who had prospered over a full season in Triple-A. He had several ways potentially to contribute to the 2006 roster, but the Indians found it necessary to acquire other players -- all of them arguably lesser talents -- to fill all of those roles.
Despite this, Indians officials say Garko has progressed very steadily into an adequate defensive first baseman -- while Broussard seems to have fallen in his manager's estimation to that same "adequate" level, if not lower. The Indians likely are wondering not only how Garko will hit and field in the majors, but whether he can take Broussard's job altogether. The Indians' team-wide failure in the major leagues this season has become Garko's opportunity.