Over the weekend, Melky Cabrera signed a two year contract with everyone's new favorite dark horse World Series contender, the Toronto Blue Jays. Cabrera, 28, signed for $8 million per year as he attempts to re-establish his career and reputation following a fifty game ban and subsequent exile from the Giants after he tested positive for excessive testosterone. Cabrera's swift signing ended speculation about the eventual landing spot and price for one of the more volatile members on this year's free agent class.
More importantly for Mariner fans though, Cabrera's signing terminates the chase for the most intriguing buy-low candidate available for hire. Given the Mariners well-documented need to acquire at least one outfielder, and the inviting possibility that Cabrera's suspension might have turned one of the better hitters on the market into a bargain, he was undoubtedly on the club's radar. Dave Cameron featured Cabrera in his off-season plan, and ever since, many in the fan community have rooted for the Mariners to take a gamble on him. Presumably, some are miffed that the M's didn't come away with Cabrera, as $16 million over two years isn't a heavy investment.
I'm not one of them, however. While Cabrera's contract isn't a massive overpay (particularly for a team like Toronto, a club needing a break or three to emerge from the toughest division in sports) there are enough red flags in Cabrera's game that I would have avoided him at this price. Given his shaky history, some unsustainable numbers last season, and the sheer number of outfielders available this winter, I think the Mariners made the right call by passing on Cabrera.
First though, let's get the PED aspect of this out of the way. My stance has nothing to do with the stigma associated with signing someone who has tested positive for performance enhancers. I don't support Cabrera's decision to use a banned substance, and I don't think we can eliminate the possibilty that his performance spiked partly because of drugs (more on that later). But I'm much more ambivalent about the role of PED's in sports than many others and I just can't get too worked up over it in Cabrera's case. He cheated, he was suspended, he was ostracized from a World Series winning ballclub, and his salary took a massive hit from what he would have earned had he not tested positive. I'd say the man paid his price. And let's not talk about the morality concerns associated with signing a "cheater." This is a team that has rostered numerous steroid users, used a spitballer's chase for 300 wins as a marketing device, and far more controversially, employed Josh Lueke. Signing Cabrera wouldn't have tainted the organization's unblemished moral fiber.
But back to the argument at hand: I'll concede that there's no secret why Cabrera was coveted. Over the past two seasons, the once light-hitting Cabrera emerged as one of the better hitters in the American League, combining passable defense with a newfound ability to hit for a high average. He's hit .322/.360/.489 (136 OPS+) with twenty-nine homers in over 1,200 plate appearances since the start of the 2011 season, a performance both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs estimate to be worth around nine wins. His emergence as an all-star after a horrendous 2010 campaign in Atlanta was one of the feel good stories in baseball (until August 15th anyways), and as one of the best players on a contending team, he was a fringe MVP candidate.
But beneath the surface, there are a couple of reasons to be concerned with Cabrera's statistical profile. The first one is batting average on balls in play related. Prior to 2011, Cabrera had bettered the .300 BABIP mark just once in his career, when he barely cleared the mark with a .309 clip in 2006. In 2011, when his batting average topped .300 for the first time, his BABIP was .332. In 2012, the mark kept rising, this time to .378, a lofty figure that we can confidently expect to regress markedly toward his career rates.
I'm a bit unsettled that Cabrera's success is so largely predicated on his ability to post a high BABIP. I'm particularly concerned because Cabrera isn't much of a walker (he's earned a free pass in about 6% of his plate appearances the past two seasons) and he doesn't have the best wheels in the league. I think there's a decent chance 2012 represents the peak of Cabrera's ability to get on base, and even then, his OBP was under .400.
The problem is compounded by Cabrera's inability to offer enough power to compensate for a potential drop in batting average. While it's true that Cabrera's power numbers have improved along with his BABIP, he still isn't anybody's idea of a slugger. The highest isolated power* mark of Cabrera's career is last season's .170, a number placing him in company with guys like Rickie Weeks, Hunter Pence, and Chris Johnson. His career ISO though is .130, a number closer to what Shane Victorino (11 homers) posted this season. Split the difference, and he's got a bit more pop than Justin Smoak. Essentially, his power is decent, but hardly a calling card of his game.
*- Isolated power (ISO) is a measure of a player's true power. Calculated by subtracting a player's batting average from his slugging percentage, ISO strips singles from a player's statistical profile and measures how many bases he got per at-bat.
Still, if Cabrera had a long track record of a performance that resembled what he posted the past two years, I'd have been on board with signing him. I just can't forget about how bad he was with the bat prior to 2011. From 2005-2010, Cabrera never posted a wRC+ over 100, and only once did his OBP reach .350. His performance bottomed out in 2010 with Atlanta (.255/.317/.354 with four homers in 147 games), a year in which he accumulated negative 1.1 WAR. Considering his rapid turnaround from 2010 to 2011-12, it's no surprise that many around the game have considered Cabrera's improvement a product of PED use.
PED's are a subject that I don't want to discuss too much. It's extremely slippery ground and it's a topic that leads to passionate and not necessarily rational discussion. That said, I don't think too many people can jump from replacement level to all-star with a few injections: if it were that simple, I would imagine we'd see more positive tests. I also believe that, in the aggregate, the impact that steroids can have on a players performance have been exaggerated over time.
But I would also argue that we have no idea how much of a boost an individual player can get from using a performance enhancing substance. What we do know is that Cabrera was bad in 2010. We know that he was a lot better in 2011, and then even better the year after that. We also know that Cabrera failed a drug test at the pinnacle of his statistical career. We do not know how much (if at all) drugs impacted his health or his performance. We can't know, and it would be unwise to place a precise value on his testosterone levels.
That said, I think it is safe to say that PED's probably did not hurt Cabrera's game, which places his past achievements in doubt somewhat. It's a stigma that Cabrera will have to live with until he has another season in the realm of what we saw from him in 2011-12. Any team that signed him this off-season would have been gambling that future Cabrera is a lot like 2011-12 Melky and not at all like the player he was earlier in his career. It's still a gamble that I might have been willing to take had Cabrera come cheap or if there were few viable alternatives.
Neither of those scenarios came to fruition. Talking about price first, Cameron's off-season plan was predicated on the assumption that Cabrera would sign cheaply, likely for just one year. But at more than $16 million (assuming that we would have had to kick in money on top of what Toronto offered), signing Cabrera would have hampered the Mariners flexibility this winter. Given the high degree of uncertainty about his future performance, I'm not sure that he makes sense for this team. The M's still need to pay Jason Vargas, they'll want to add an impact outfielder, and unless they want Blake Beavan taking the ball every fifth day, they'll need to consider signing another starter as well. Giving Cabrera $16 million wouldn't have prevented the M's from filling those holes, but his contract might have forced the team to be more frugal elsewhere. That's not an ideal situation, particularly considering that this free agent market is chalk full of outfielders.
We've talked a lot on here about the outfielders the M's can add this winter. I've written about Nick Swisher and Griffin has argued that Cody Ross and B.J. Upton would augment the team as well. Those are three names that make a lot of sense before even mentioning players like Shane Victorino, or bargain buys like Grady Sizemore and Jonny Gomes, to say nothing of possible trade candidates. There's a ton of value to be had in the outfield this winter and a lot of the available buys either offer fewer question marks or a lower price than Cabrera.
And ultimately, that's why I'm a bit down on Cabrera. No, I wouldn't have argued too strongly had it been Seattle instead of Toronto that signed Cabrera for 2/$16. There's a good chance he provides more than enough production to cover the deal. But with the uncertainty surrounding Cabrera and the bevy of available options, I think the Mariners can do better with what remains on the table. I have no problems with the team passing on Melky.