"I guess this is the end, old friend". (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
If you're a Red Sox fan, you likely know what "The 25" means. One of the 25 players from the 2004 World Championship Red Sox, the franchise's first such successful club since 1918. While the 2007 team was, in many ways, an even better squad, 2004 wins out on sentimentality, given there was so much emotion wrapped up in not succeeding for the better part of a century.
Orlando Cabrera was one of The 25, thanks to a mid-season trade that brought him south to Boston from Montreal, the only home he had known in baseball to that point. This deadline swap also sent then life-long Red Sox Nomar Garciaparra off to the Chicago Cubs, effectively kicking him out of this 25-man club, but he's fondly remembered for plenty else in this city, and appropriately received his own ring for his contributions to 2004. Cabrera's claim to Boston fame is wrapped up entirely in his half-season of 2004, in which he produced one of the best offensive stretches of his career, on top of playing the better-than-Nomar defense that the Red Sox picked him up for in the first place.
Cabrera announced his retirement on a Colombia radio station yesterday, and while this isn't surprising news given his recent play, his age, or where we are in terms of nearing the end of the off-season, it's still sad to hear this is the end of Orlando Cabrera in Major League Baseball.
His career began back in 1997, at the age of 22. The Montreal Expos had signed him as an international free agent four years prior, out of Colombia, in the final year of Dan Duquette's time as Expos' general manager. Fittingly, there were plenty of other Duquette pieces on the 2004 Red Sox due to his time as GM prior to Theo Epstein, and Cabrera's acquisition added to that total in a small way.
It took Cabrera time to establish himself -- he didn't become the team's full-time shortstop until sometime in 1999 -- but the promise of his bat coupled with a smooth glove made for the possibility of a productive future.
He broke out in 2001 as a 26-year-old, hitting .276/.324/.428. While that would mean a lot more today, it was actually a bit below-average in 2001 due to the offensive levels of the time. But, Cabrera was a shortstop, and like an immutable law of physics that stretches back to the universe's infancy, shortstops were terrible at the plate back then, too. The average MLB shortstop hit just .269/.322/.403 in 2001, despite playing in a league where the average hitter was at .264/.332/.427, and this at a time when Alex Rodriguez (.318/.399/.622), Derek Jeter (.311/.377/.480), Miguel Tejada (.267/.326/.476), and Nomar (an injury-shortened .289/.352/.470 that followed a four-year stretch with a 963 OPS) were at or near the top of their craft at the position.
Cabrera would stick right around that level for the next few seasons, save a brief moment where, in 2003, he put together his most productive campaign. The lone season out of 15 where he was an above-average hitter -- and not just shortstop -- for exactly 162 games.
Cabrera's age-28 season featured a .297/.347/.460 line, 17 homers, 24 steals in 26 chances, and, surprisingly, sub-par defensive play. You can't have it all, as his next season reminded us: Cabrera was available for the Red Sox in part due to his impending free agency, but also because he was in the midst of his worst season since 2000 to that point. The trade revitalized his play, if not Cabrera himself, and history Red Sox fans remember fondly rather than cringe-inducingly was born just three months later.
Cabrera didn't stay with the Red Sox following the season, as they chose to go with free agent (and final out of the 2004 World Series) Edgar Renteria as their new shortstop of the future. While the emotional connection to Cabrera (and Renteria's poor 2005) made this seem like the wrong move at the time to many, hindsight has given us the ability to see that maybe Theo Epstein didn't need to look back to know what he was doing: Renteria out-hit Cabrera from 2005 through 2008, while Cabrera was the somewhat better fielder -- this is a non-random stretch chosen because both shortstops signed four-year deals following the 2004 campaign. Renteria earned $40 million, and Cabrera $32 million, with the two putting up similar overall value on both sides of the ball. There wasn't a real wrong answer here, and given Renteria was the younger of the two -- non-elite middle infielders don't tend to age well -- he was the safer selection of the pair.
So ended Cabrera's short but historic tenure with Boston, and began his career with their playoff rival, the Angels. Cabrera never again came close to the heights of 2003, or his half-season with Boston the next year, but he put in another seven years with seven teams. His bat faded first, then his glove work began to crumble, and soon all that was left was a shortstop sent from team to team before the trade deadline, in the hopes of rekindling some of the magic of 2004.
That magic had left Cabrera long before for the most part, but it hadn't vanished entirely. His bat, slumbering all season in Oakland, awoke in the Metrodome: Cabrera the Twin hit .289 and slugged .430, the latter his best showing since 2004 with Boston. It was Cabrera who launched the two-run homer against the Tigers in the seventh inning of Game 163 that put the Twins up 4-3. Those runs proved necessary, as the Twins won in extras, 6-5, to earn a playoff berth.
Cabrera would sign on with the Reds the following year to be their starting shortstop. He was the weak link on a playoff team, between injuries and the natural aging curve of a shortstop; at season's end, his option was declined, and for the second time in his career, he was replaced by free agent Edgar Renteria.
A move down the defensive spectrum to second base was the last ditch effort to revitalize his career in Cleveland, but alas, his bat was having none of it. That inability to hit is just what the Giants look for in their players, though, so they acquired Cabrera mid-season -- for the first time, it didn't help, and signaled as much as Cabrera's official retirement that this was the end.
Cabrera had a fine career, even if it didn't end that way. As karmic retribution for beginning things with eight seasons in Montreal, Cabrera was part of a playoff team six times in his final seven-and-a-half seasons. His .379/.424/.448 ALCS in 2004, where Boston came back from down 3-0 to earn the World Series appearance that helped make Cabrera a cult hero in Red Sox history, was easily his most significant achievement on the game's October stage.
Cabrera will be missed, in the sense that he's like an old friend to those of us who watched 2004, but we'll always have that year and our memories of The 25. Thanks for your brief -- but successful -- time in Boston, Orlando.