MLB Preview 2013: Will Gamble on Melky Cabrera Pay Off For Blue Jays?
Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton were the big-ticket items in free agency this winter, but the intrigue belonged to Melky Cabrera. How would his dismissal from the World Champion San Francisco Giants, and his suspension for performance enhancing drugs, impact his contract? He would leave money on the table because of his actions, but how much? How much were PEDs contributing to his performance? I'll address some of those questions, but first, some backstory:
Melky Cabrera was one of the hottest stories in baseball last year. After a solid start in April hitting .300/.366/.422, he exploded in May hitting an absurd .429/.457/.647 in 127 plate appearances. He had just three 0-for-4 games during the month and another game where he only played after the eight inning and went hitless in his only plate appearance. Pitchers were given a reprieve in June went he was “held” to just .304/.343/.441 in 108 trips to the plate. For a team known for pitching and a lack of hitting, the San Francisco Giants boasted two of baseball’s best hitters for the first couple months of the season with Cabrera and eventual-MVP Buster Posey.
Cabrera’s season then met an abrupt end.
It wasn’t an injury it was much worse. On August 15th it was announced that Cabrera had tested positive for testosterone and would be suspended for 50 games. The suspension would end his season. The Giants could have added Cabrera to their playoff roster after the first round but they decided against it.
The circumstances surrounding Cabrera after his suspension likely contributed to that decision. Reports suggest that Cabrera left the clubhouse without even saying goodbye to his teammates. Shortly thereafter, news leaked that Cabrera and an associate concocted a fake website in hopes of duping MLB into thinking he took a legal supplement that was then spiked.
With those black clouds hanging overhead, and free agency looming, it became evident that the relationship between the Giants and Cabrera was effectively done. The Giants sent Cabrera off with a full playoff share, which irked some, but made sense considering that even with the 45 missed regular season games, he was still the second-best player on the team from a value standpoint using Baseball Prospectus’ WARP and Baseball-Reference’s WAR, third by Fangraphs’ WAR.
Cabrera’s arc fits a pretty easy narrative for those who believe PEDs have a miracle-level impact. He had an decent 2009 season in New York that ended with an offseason trade to Atlanta where an out-of-shape Cabrera turned in the worst season of his career and was eventually released. He signed with Kansas City and allegedly turned to PEDs (again we have no idea when he started) which help him toward a career-year, though there was no discernible change in his skill profile whatsoever from Atlanta to Kansas City. The one aspect of PEDs rarely challenged is their ability to keep players on the field. This has never been a problem for Cabrera with zero disabled list trips in his career. This only muddies the water on his identifying his potential usage. Has he been using from the jump thus staying healthy? If so, why did the numbers take so long to come?
The Royals then traded him to San Francisco where he gets off to an even better career-year before getting popped with a positive test and subsequent suspension. The results from Atlanta and even New York were certainly nothing special – though it can be attributed to an early-20s player learning the ropes – to Kansas City and San Francisco where he became an All-Star level talent are easy to point to and scream “PEDs!!”, but finding the actual skill difference from one set to another is tricky with Cabrera.
So what did Toronto buy when they signed him to a two-year, $16 million dollar deal? On hand they obviously got a potential bargain because Cabrera doesn’t need to be the KC/SF guy to earn that deal. He can essentially be half the player he was in 2012 and still clear $8 mil a year in relative value. Was the testosterone he tested for his version of Popeye’s spinach? If we saw a spike in flyballs and subsequently a matching spike in home runs, it would be easy to say PEDs were giving him some sort of power boost since that’s what everyone associates them with anyway. But there is nothing like that.
In fact, Cabrera’s flyball rate is on the decline, bottoming out at a career-low 26.1 percent with the Giants. His line drive rate was a career-best 21.8 percent, but with rates between 18.6 and 20.9 from 2007 to 2011, the 2012 figure is hardly outrageous. There’s nothing to point to in his stats where you can say Toronto should expect this particular stat to change now that he's allegedly clean.
The risk comes is more about the man than the stats.
By all accounts, Cabrera appears to be sorry for what he did and accepts responsibility, but one incident early in camp has some a bit curious. He was given the opportunity to promise the people of Toronto that he wouldn’t do this again and according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, he wasn’t exactly ready for such a declaration:
“That was a mistake I made last year, in 2012,” Cabrera replied, through his interpreter, third-base coach Luis Rivera. “It’s 2013. I want to concentrate on being in the field, playing hard and help this team win a championship.”
The Jays took a calculated risk, but one that has a high upside of paying off on the field even if there is some collateral damage off it. If Cabrera reverts back to the Atlanta version – or worse gets caught taking banned substances again – the PR hit will be larger. This team is set up to win a lot of games and Cabrera is far from the most important cog in the machine. If more turmoil were to happen, but the team competitive in the division in late-July, the damage should be minimal.
If those worst-case scenarios came to pass, and the Jays had to shift the lineup around inserting Rajai Davis in for Cabrera, it would have a minimal impact on the team’s bottom ability to remain a contender even if Cabrera were raking. After all, San Francisco was far more reliant on his contributions through August 14th and removing him from the lineup entirely didn’t stop them from winning a World Series title. This Jays team is deep enough to take on a risk like Cabrera allowing him to lay low in the background and regain his footing professionally and publicly.
Hopefully he does better with his second chance than some of the others we’ve seen lately dealing with similar issues tied to PEDs.
Paul Sporer has been writing about baseball for 12 years for Baseball Prospectus and various other websites.