Melky Cabrera: the WAR on Drugs

On August 15, the 2012 season came to a screeching halt for Melky Cabrera, and seemingly, for the San Francisco Giants too. After posting a sensational .346/.390/.516 line with 11 HR, 60 RBI, 84 R, and 13 SB, the 27 year-old left-fielder was immediately suspended for fifty games for testing positive for high testosterone levels. Aside from the usual shock involved when a mainstream player is indicted for involvement with illegal substances, less than a week later, it was additionally uncovered that Cabrera, through the help of “consultant” (paid by his agents, no less), created a fictitious website that was aimed at exonerating his obvious wrongdoing. The playoff-geared Giants were all of a sudden without their standout outfielder, and forced to replace his high-shelf production with the likes of Gregor Blanco. But more specific–selfishly, perhaps–to Melky’s impending free agent status, his actions had most likely cost himself a huge off-season payday.

If you had asked the Atlanta Braves in 2010 whether Melky Cabrera was entitled to a multi-year contract worth upwards of $15 million per season, General Manager Frank Wren would have probably snickered, and then swiftly called security. After all, the then 25 year-old Cabrera posted a .255/.317/.354 line, with an offensive -18.9 UZR/150. Needless to say, the outfielder had not come as advertised from the Yankees, despite being an integral part of the trade that sent Javier Vazquez to the pinstripes. What was more indicative of Melky’s dismal 2010 season, was that the Braves actually released him in the off-season. That means the organization was so certain of his talents (or lack there of), that they didn’t even want to give him a second chance, or potentially stick him in Triple-A.

Yet, seeing as the Kansas City Royals are always keen on Braves cast-offs, the bottom-feeders inked Cabrera on December 10, 2010, breathing new life into what other teams viewed as a dead horse. To the jubilation of the Royals (and a lot of initially, heavily-teased fantasy baseball players), Cabrera and the Royals clicked. The outfielder posted a solid .293/.332/.455 line in the fist half of 2010, and didn’t slow down in the second half (.322/.349/.489 line). The switch-hitter hit an even line against both lefties (.304/.329/.459) and righties (.306/.344/.475) to boot. His 4.1 WAR was not only a career-best, but also, it was better than all his preceding years combined (by 0.1 WAR).

But everyone knew better than to trust Melky Cabrera. His 2011 breakout season had been a fluke, right? The Royals certainly thought so, as they “sold high” on Melky, sending him to the San Francisco Giants for the hard-throwing, free-pass-giving Jonathan Sanchez. At the time, most people sided with the Royals on the trade, including myself. After all, Sanchez was a left-handed starting pitcher, who, despite a rough 2011 season (4.26 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 1.55 K/BB in 101.3 IP), had finally put it together in 2010, posting a 3.07 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 2.14 BB/K in 193.3 IP, and 3.0 WAR. Plus, the Royals really need a “good” starting pitcher.

Needless to say, the Giants won that trade by a large margin. Sanchez was not the “good” pitcher the Royals had hoped for, hurling a 7.76 ERA, 2.04 WHIP, and 0.85 K/BB in 53.3 IP, before being dealt to the Rockies for Jeremy Guthrie. The switch back to the National League did little for southpaw too, posting an equally atrocious 9.53 ERA, 2.29 WHIP, and 1.00 K/BB in just 11.3 IP. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Melky Cabrera flourished in San Francisco. Even though his homerun total dipped (from 18 HR to 11 HR), he still posted a superior SLG (from .470 to .516), and seemed to improve as a hitter, in general, seeing a 2.2% spike in BB% (from 5.0% to 7.2%), and swung at less pitches outside the strikezone (from 36.7% O-Swing% to 34.8% O-Swing%). There is no doubt Cabrera’s career-high 4.7 WAR was huge achievement, but due to the late-season suspension, the “Is Melky Cabrera for real” chatter re-commenced.

Having generated a 4.1 WAR and 4.7 WAR in 2011 and 2012, respectively, the young (for a free agent, at least) Cabrera could have easily commanded a three to five year contract on the open market. And if you’re of the belief that 1.0 WAR is equivalent to about $5 million, then you can do the math of how much, dollar-wise, the outfielder was worth in each of his recently successful seasons. Yet with his “cheater” label, any prospective team in their right mind would have to think twice (or thrice) about handing Cabrera the contract he deserved pre-suspension. Since Cabrera owned just 4.0 WAR from 2005 to 2010 combined, there is a huge descrepency between the pre-2011 Cabrera, and the post-2011 Cabrera.

From the looks of Melky’s recent signing with the Blue Jays, it looks as though the most aggressive off-season franchise is projecting a-somewhere-in-between-Melky. They signed the maligned outfielder to a modest, low-risk two-year, $16 million contract, in hopes that their new starting left-fielder will at least play to his 2006 (2.7 WAR) or 2007 (1.2 WAR) level, and at best, at either his 2011 (4.1 WAR) or 2012 (4.7 WAR) ceiling. Seeing as no one actually knows what kind of affect the illegal substances had on Melky’s excellent, recent play, the oft-savvy Blue Jays could be in-line for this off-season’s steal—or, they could receive a call from Frank Wren saying, “I told you so.”

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