PHOENIX — A few days ago, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler explained that he's more apt to start Scott Kingery at shortstop behind a ground-ball pitcher because Kingery is a better defender than newly acquired Asdrubal Cabrera.
But Kapler's shortstop strategy was short-lived.
Cabrera started at shortstop Sunday with ace Aaron Nola on the mound and again Monday night with sinkerballer Jake Arrieta making the start against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kapler said Cabrera has looked good at shortstop despite not playing the position regularly since 2016. But he also conceded that the offensive boost that Cabrera provides outweighs his defensive shortcomings, especially against the pitching-rich Diamondbacks.
"Scott might have more range, but Asdrubal is going to catch the ball," Kapler said. "And he's going to provide us with a nice, deep lineup. We know that we're going to have to score some runs against this team."
The Phillies traded for Cabrera on July 27 because of his bat. Entering Monday night's series opener, he had 20 home runs and an .804 on-base plus slugging percentage in 406 at-bats between the New York Mets and the Phillies, a substantial upgrade over Kingery's five homers and .596 OPS in 362 at-bats.
But Cabrera's track record as a defender is less than stellar. From 2012 through 2016, he ranked last among all shortstops with minus-43 defensive runs saved. The Mets moved him to second base last season because of his limited range. Asked before the trade if Cabrera could handle moving back to shortstop, a scout from a rival National League team said, "No [expletive] way."
Cabrera acknowledged that returning to the position has been a challenge. In particular, he has had to readjust to making a longer throw, often from a different arm angle. Ultimately, though, shortstop isn't foreign territory for him.
"It's a big move," Cabrera said. "Coming from second base, you see the first baseman right there. My first day at shortstop, I got a ground ball in left field. It's a really long throw. But it's part of the business. It's part of the game. I just come here and work hard and try to do my best and try to feel confident at shortstop again."
Kapler said Cabrera is "probably fairly motivated right now" to prove he can still play shortstop. And thus far, Kapler has seen Cabrera make every play he's supposed to make.
The Phillies will do what they can to put Cabrera in the best position to make plays. They often employ a defensive shift, which could help mitigate his lack of range.
But while Kingery has drawn praise for his defense in his first season as a shortstop, there's little comparing his offense to Cabrera's. Kingery has been one of the NL's weakest hitters for most of the season. And although Cabrera was only 6-for-31 through his first eight games for the Phillies, he homered Saturday and Sunday, including the go-ahead shot in the eighth inning Sunday against the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park.
So, even though Arrieta's success often rides on whether the ground balls that he induces find holes or gloves, Cabrera was at shortstop for the series opener against the Diamondbacks. Right on cue, Cabrera charged a slow roller and made a strong throw to first base to retire Paul Goldschmidt in the first inning.
"You still compare Asdrubal to Scott Kingery to another shortstop and who's going to cover the most ground," Kapler said. "To really look at this fairly, you have to say Asdrubal gives us our best chance to score runs, and that's why he's in our lineup tonight. And he's playing a good shortstop."