[Updated 6:30 p.m.]
The Nationals' sudden need for infield help prompted general manager Mike Rizzo to make a rare deal for a 2-month rental player on Thursday: Asdrubal Cabrera, who was acquired from the Indians for Zach Walters less than an hour before the 2014 non-waiver trade deadline.
Cabrera, 28, is a natural shortstop who was a two-time All-Star in 2011 and 2012, but he has experience playing second base, where he'll most likely fit in with the Nationals. He has appeared at second in 162 career games, though not since 2009.
A switch-hitter, Cabrera owns a career .264 batting average and .737 OPS against right-handers, a significant offensive upgrade over Danny Espinosa, who has a career .215 batting average and .650 OPS against right-handers.
Rizzo cited Cabrera's versatility as a large reason for making the deal.
"He's a terrific two-way player. He's a great defensive middle infielder who has been a terrific shortstop defensively," he said.
"He played second base earlier in his career and played that outstanding. He's a very balanced hitter from both sides of the plate, really just a big league hitter. We did a lot of work on his makeup and character before he gets into our clubhouse and I've heard nothing but positive things about him."
Rizzo lauded Cabrera's defense, though the 28-year-old does leave the Indians with the second-most errors in the American league with 14, most among AL shortstops. At second base he has been much better defensively with five errors in those 162 career games and a .994 fielding percentage.
Cabrera is owed roughly $3 million over the rest of the season, then becomes a free agent this winter, so he's strictly a short-term rental player, something Rizzo has been reluctant to acquire in the past. The Indians, per terms of the deal, actually will pick up the rest of his contract.
But Ryan Zimmerman's significant hamstring injury, suffered nine days ago, left the Nationals in need of some short-term infield help. Rizzo confirmed the impact of Zimmerman's injury on making the deal before Thursday's game against the Phillies.
"That factored into it. With a healthy Zim and a healthy eight players that we had, we certainly wouldn't have found the need to go out and acquire a player as skillful as Cabrera," he said.
"Like we've always said, we like the team that we have and when Zim went down, in order to protect ourselves we felt like we should go out and get ourselves a good veteran person to fit into the lineup."
Williams echoed that sentiment:
"It's important for us to get a guy like that if we can get a guy like that right now. We don't know the extent to which Zim will be out, what kind of timeframe we are looking at."
With Anthony Rendon now taking over at third base until Zimmerman returns (perhaps not until September), the Nats were left with Espinosa as their everyday second baseman. Now manager Matt Williams can go with Cabrera as his regular.
"It depends on the situation, but yeah," Williams said. "He's an everyday player. He is a guy that's been in pennant races, he understands that. He understands the pressures of this time of year and getting to where you want to go. He will be a welcome addition for us and we'll plug him right in as soon as we can get him here."
Rizzo and Williams said Cabrera will play primarily at second base, but could give Ian Desmond days off at shortstop. The Nats general manager also mentioned the veteran's playoff experience.
"I like that he's battle tested, he's been in the playoffs before, he's been in pennant races," Rizzo said.
Walters was well-liked in the Nationals' organization and put up big power numbers at Class AAA Syracuse. But the 24-year-old infielder did little in his limited time in the big leagues, hitting .234 with three homers and 16 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances.
Walters was acquired in a 2011 deadline deal involving starter Jason Marquis, who went to the Diamondbacks. Now, three years and one day later, Walters has been swapped for a potentially valuable piece for the Nats as they get set for a tight pennant race.
Rizzo noted that turnaround in his comments on Walters.
"One thing that we have shown here is that there is no small trade. All trades are important to us. They can be characterized at the time you make them as a small deal, but sometimes the small deals turn into gold."
The Nationals will still be able to add more pieces if they so choose, as the waiver trade deadline is not until Aug. 31. In 2012 they acquired catcher Kurt Suzuki in August and last year they brought in outfielder David DeJesus.
Rizzo did not rule out making another deal before the season is out.
"We're still going to keep our eyes open and our options open. Whatever deal makes sense, we're not afraid to make one."