Washington Nationals: Team’s best addition actually came in August

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 26: Asdrubal Cabrera #13 of the Washington Nationals celebrates with teammates after hitting a home run against the Philadelphia Phillies during the seventh inning at Nationals Park on September 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 26: Asdrubal Cabrera #13 of the Washington Nationals celebrates with teammates after hitting a home run against the Philadelphia Phillies during the seventh inning at Nationals Park on September 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

Even with a single trade deadline on July 31st, the best midseason pickup of the year came in August when the Washington Nationals signed Asdrubal Cabrera.

Like every other team in the majors, the Washington Nationals approached the league-instituted single trade deadline of July 31st with equal parts zeal to patch roster holes and FOMO. Teams had to act within a vacuum, unable to gauge their own acquisitions against their rivals’ because of the elimination of August waiver trades.

In the days leading up to the deadline, the Mets clearly acquired the best player of trade season (Marcus Stroman). In the immediate aftermath of the deadline, the Houston Astros seemed like the big winners for snagging Zack Greinke from the Diamondbacks. The Cubs were a popular choice for best player added because of Nicholas Castellanos.

Then, on August 6th, the Nationals signed Asdrubal Cabrera.

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The man who signed Cabrera – Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo – is an “old school” baseball guy in many ways, which in post-Moneyball baseball parlance tends to mean not good, though in this case I just mean that he came up as a Scouting Director.

He’s not one of these wunderkind GMs from Yale who can still sing soprano in the GM Choir (do you not know about the GM Choir??), and no, he isn’t at his best when putting together a bullpen. That’s fair.

But let’s give credit where its due. Rather than attempt a referendum on the man’s full worth as an executive, let this nifty little resume suffice: the Nats have made the playoffs in five of the last eight seasons, they haven’t had a losing record since 2011, and in an impressive display of sleight-of-hand, he cobbled together a fun and potent bench mob in Washington this season.

Remember, depth has been an issue for the Nationals this year and in year’s past. When Trea Turner broke his finger in the fourth game of the year, there was no Plan B, and shortstop became a black hole until mid-May (sorry, Wilmer Difo). On May 24, the Washington Nationals were 19-31, the second-worst record in the National League.

But the bench has been the story behind the story of the Nationals turnaround. It starts with Gerardo Parra, whose influence on the clubhouse has been well-documented at this point, though Parra Shark mania and Dugout Dance Party doesn’t happen if not for a few timely on-field contributions.

Namely, a game-winning grand slam in Chavez Ravine on his second day as a National, a go-ahead 2-run HR at Citi Field as part of a 3-hit, 3-run, 3-RBI win in his fifth game as a National and, in game one of the first (of two) doubleheader sweeps of the Phillies, Parra Shark gunned down local villain Bryce Harper when he tried to go first to third on a single.

Changing his walk-up music to Baby Shark certainly didn’t hurt Parra’s popularity in Washington, nor did breaking out of a slump with a 3-3 effort this past Friday, nor did going 2-2 with a grand slam in a 9-run second inning on Saturday. Parra’s latest heroics helped the Nats clinch home field for the Wild Card game.

But there’s another key player the Nats underrated GM snagged off the scrap heap: Asdrubal Cabrera. The Rangers mercifully cut Cabrera loose on August 3rd, allowing the veteran infielder to seek playing time with a playoff contender, and he became a Washington National three days later.

This was not a headline stealing move. But sure enough, Cabrera stole not only headlines in Washington, but the everyday second base job and the fifth spot in the batting order. Cabrera now serves as lineup protection for Juan Soto, the greatest teenage hitter in the history of baseball and the man sticking his face in the Bryce Harper Memorial franchise player cardboard cutout.

The Nationals didn’t exactly have a hole at second base either. Brian Dozier rebounded from an awful first few months (per usual), and at the time of the Cabrera signing, he’d been hitting .272/.385/.517 for two months. Plus, they had renaissance man Howie Kendrick and his .344/.395/.572 line taking starts at second every now and again.

Cabrera’s .235/.319/.393 line didn’t look like the resume of a player who would take at-bats from either player. As for Rizzo’s expectations, he’d sung this song before: he acquired Cabrera from Cleveland on deadline day in 2014 in exchange for infielder Zach Walters. Cabrera’s first stint in DC wasn’t much different from his play in Texas: 200 plate appearances, .229/.312/.389.

But there were other reasons to like Cabrera as a fit on South Capitol Street. His first 8 seasons (914 regular season games) came with the Indians, for whom he made his major-league debut in 2007. Cabrera was 21-years-old that season, the same age as Victor Robles now, a year older than Soto.

Cabrera made his postseason debut that year, as Robles and Soto will on Tuesday. As the starting second baseman for that 2007 Indians team, he came within a win of the World Series before the eventual World Champion Red Sox stormed back from down 3-1 to win the AL pennant.

Cabrera knows with stomach-churning intimacy the fleeting nature of Tuesday’s opportunity. After 2007, Cabrera waited six seasons before reaching the playoffs again. He didn’t win another playoff game until 2014…with the Nationals. He was the starting second baseman for all four games of Washington’s 2014 NLDS 1-3 loss to the Giants, going 3-15 with a home run and a pair of RBIs.

On Tuesday, when the Nationals host either the Brewers or Cardinals for the NL Wild Card game, there’s nothing that Soto and Robles will face that Cabrera hasn’t seen before.

That is, until the Nationals score a run. He’s been a part of two Wild Card games, both at home and both times his team was shut out (’07 Indians, ’16 Mets). Heartbreaking as those losses may have been for Cabrera, the pain of defeat can now be repurposed as veteran wisdom for these young Washington Nationals.

Remember, this reunion isn’t some happy accident. It’s not coincidence. It’s telling that Cabrera returned to Washington when the Rangers made him a free man. Of course, it’s a much different organization now. The 2014 Washington Nationals were skippered by Matt Williams and led by yet a much different 21-year-old making his playoff debut. You might remember him: Harper, Bryce.

But it’s not wholly different. Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmermanand Stephen Strasburg were on that 2014 team. For what it’s worth, um, Michael A. Taylor was on that team. Get your handkerchiefs ready for this one: Aaron Barrett was on that team. Most importantly, perhaps, Mike Rizzo was the man who brought Cabrera to Washington both times.

Second verse same as the first? Oh, no no no no no no no no.

Second verse much better than the first.

Since joining Washington on August 6, Cabrera has more hits than games played. He has more RBIs than games played. Between Texas and Washington in 2019, Cabrera has turned back the clock with 18 home runs and 90 RBIs.

I could talk all day about how good Cabrera has been since becoming a Washington National. About the Ouroboros of mentorship between Cabrera/Harper/Soto. But nothing translates his importance to this team better than this side-by-side of two players since August 1:

Player B, shocker, is Asdrubal Cabrera. Player A plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His name is Cody Bellinger.

Next. Can the Washington Natinoals pen sustain a postseason run?. dark

For two months, for the cost of the prorated veteran minimum, Cabrera has been better than the likely National League MVP. If the Washington Nationals can win on Tuesday, he’ll get a chance to prove it head-to-head.

Then we’ll see who can hit the high notes.