What will Melky Cabrera give the Blue Jays? | Baseball | CBC Sports

MLBWhat will Melky Cabrera give the Blue Jays?

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 | 02:30 PM

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Melky Cabrera posted big numbers the last two seasons before he was suspended for failing a drug test. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images) Melky Cabrera posted big numbers the last two seasons before he was suspended for failing a drug test. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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The Toronto Blue Jays' off-season signing of Melky Cabrera really signing surprised me. Here's what I think the Jays can expect this season from their new left-fielder as he comes off last year's 50-game suspension.
I'll admit, the Toronto Blue Jays' signing of Melky Cabrera surprised me.

To be fair, each of the big moves this off-season surprised me. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos is great at keeping rumors from getting out before he is ready to announce a deal. But with all the salary the Jays took on in their blockbuster trade with the Marlins, I figured the Rogers ownership wouldn't spend any more money. I thought they'd hit the limit.

The Jays needed to improve on the production they got from left field last year. It was a sink hole. In spring training last year there was a battle for the left-field job between Eric Thames and Travis Snider. Both had good springs, and the Jays gave the job to Thames on the theory that he had it at the end of the 2011 season and had done nothing to lose the job.

When the season started, Thames did everything he could to lose the job, but Snider injured his wrist, so at the end of May Rajai Davis took over. He wasn't much better. When Snider was finally healthy, he got the role and did OK for 10 games before Anthopoulos traded him to the Pirates for Brad Lincoln. A few hours later Thames was sent to the Mariners for Steve Delabar, and Davis had the job again.

Those three played the lion's share of Toronto's games in left field (Anthony Gose had a few games at the end of the season). Davis had a WAR (explanation coming) of 0.5, Snider 0.0 and Thames minus-0.6, adding up to a WAR of minus-0.1 from the Jays' three main left-fielders.

For those unfamiliar with WAR, a quick explanation (if you're comfortable with WAR, you can skip this paragraph). WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. Basically, it compares a player to the average triple-A player that any team could call up to fill a spot. It takes into account all the things a player does on the field. For non-pitchers, that means base running, defence and batting. Knowing the mathematical formula for calculating WAR isn't important. The rule of thumb is that a WAR of less than 1 is a poor player, 2 is an OK player, 3 a decent player, 4 a good player, 5 an All-Star, and 6-plus is an MVP-calibre star. You should also know that different websites have different formulas for WAR, which can vary the final number slightly. I'm using Fangraphs' WAR stats.

The Jays needed better production from left field, but I figured they would try to fill the role with Gose, even though he needs more time in the minors, because he wouldn't cost anything. I was wrong. Anthopoulos signed Cabrera to a two-year contract at $8 million US a year.

That might seem like a lot of money, but had it not been for the 50-game suspension he received for testing positive for high levels of testosterone, Cabrera would have received at least a four-year contract offer, at double the yearly pay, from someone. For comparison's sake, note that the Yankees just traded for Vernon Wells and will pay him about $7 million for each of the next two years (the Angels will pick up the rest of the tab). That the Jays are getting Cabrera for just a million more a season amazes me.

But what should we expect from Melky this year? Looking back at his career:

Year    Age  Team  Games  WAR
2006    21    NYY    130         1.7
2007    22    NYY    150         0.5
2008    23    NYY    129         0.2
2009    24    NYY    154         1.6
2010    25    ATL     147        -1.1
2011    26    KCR    155         4.2
2012    27    SFG    113         4.6

So, reading along, he came up young, and he had a pretty good rookie season. That's generally a good sign for a player's career. The best players make it to the majors at an early age. If a player can be average at age 21, you are looking at someone who is likely to be very good. But, in Melky's case, he didn't really progress over the next three seasons. He was traded to the Braves and had just an awful season for them. After the season, he signed with the Royals and suddenly he became a very good player.

I know what you're thinking: "That's when he started using PEDs." And you may be right. Coming off a terrible year, he may have been worried about his career and looking for an edge.

The question is: how much of the improvement came from a bottle and how much was a player entering his prime, finally figuring out the game?

Cabrera has talent. No one makes the majors at 21 without talent. The prime years for baseball players are generally 26-30. Players often take a big step forward entering those years. With Cabrera entering his age 28 season with Toronto, I don't think there were be a huge drop-off in production because of the lack of PEDs. I would think that Cabrera will be working extra hard to prove that the stats of the last two seasons weren't caused by cheating.

He is hitting great this spring. After Tuesday's game he had a .382 batting average with three home runs in 55 at bats (first rule of sports writing: don't read much into spring training stats, unless, of course, they support a point you are trying to make).

Last year, Melky was hitting .346 when his season ended after 113 games due to the suspension. He won't hit .346 again this year. That average was propelled by a .379 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), a number that isn't sustainable. This year his BABIP is likely to be closer to his career mark of .311.

We also have to factor in his new home ballpark, the Rogers Centre, which is a much better place for hitters. Home runs fly out of there much easier than at San Francisco's AT&T Park. Doubles and triples also happen more often on Rogers' harder-than-grass artificial surface.

My guess is that Melky will finish with a WAR of about 4, a batting average around .300, with 15 to 20 home runs, which is much better than the production the Jays received from their left fielders last year.

Spring training notes

  • Brett Lawrie will start the season on the 15-day DL, but the start date of his DL stint is backdated to the last time he played in a spring game, so he could be back on the roster as soon as April 6. Maicer Izturis and Mark DeRosa will split time at third base until he's ready to play.
  • Jose Bautista has hit five home runs this spring, so we can feel pretty confident that he is recovered from the wrist injury that cost him 60-plus games last year.
  • Edwin Encarnacion has missed a few games after he sprained a finger in the Dominican Republic's win in the WBC championship game. He took batting practice Tuesday and said there was no pain. He plans on playing Thursday.
  • Emilio Bonifacio leads the team in spring stolen bases and appears to have won at least a share of the second base job. He should be playing second on opening day.
  • Potential closers Sergio Santos and Casey Janssen both have missed time this spring with arm soreness but both look to be ready for opening day.
  • J.P. Arencibia caught R.A. Dickey's knuckleball several times this spring, including Dickey's two WBC starts, and has impressed his manager enough to get to catch Dickey on opening day. 41-year-old Henry Blanco has won the backup catcher spot over Josh Thole. I think Thole would be the better choice, but the team feels that he would be better off playing every day in Buffalo.
  • Starting pitcher Josh Johnson is having a great spring. He has a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings, with just one walk and 21 strikeouts. Johnson is a free agent after this season.

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