In the middle of a career year, Melky Cabrera was suspended for fifty games last season after he tested positive for high levels of testosterone, which indicated usage of performance enhancing drugs. After being found out, and while appealing the ban, Cabrera had a website setup to reverse-engineer a digital trail that would make it appear as though he had purchased a legal supplement in good faith, aiming to argue that he’d ingested the drugs through no fault of his own. He was quickly found out, failed to get the ban overturned, and when it expired five games into the playoffs, the San Francisco Giants declined to add him to their playoff roster, despite having an anaemic offence– which obviously didn’t hinder them very much.
So… why sign him?
Oddly enough, it’s kinda mostly because of that.
No, drug-suspended guys aren’t the new market inefficiency, except… maybe they kind of are.
Cabrera was getting MVP whispers before word of the suspension surfaced, and for good reason. He was worth four-and-a-half wins through just 113 games in 2012, with a .346/.390/.516 line and his best-looking defensive metrics since 2009, thanks to the Giants’ astute realization that he’s nobody’s centre fielder.
But even without the drugs or the suspension there was a problem, as those numbers were powered by an stunningly high batting average on balls in play. Melky hit safely on 38.7% of the balls he put in play in 2011– well above his career BABIP of .328, which is itself now skewed by the 2012 number and the abnormally high .350 he posted in 2011.
To add some perspective, BABIP is Ichiro’s calling card, for example, and even he’s only topped Cabrera’s 2012 rate once in his career.
So… it’s fairly safe to assume that Cabrera won’t ever reach those kinds of BABIP-driven numbers again– even the typically-bullish Bill James Handbook projections have him at a considerably-declined .295/.348/.432 for 2013. But while that kind of additional reason to expect regression may sound like a double-whammy for those who are PED wary, but the reality just isn’t so simple.
It’s understandable that many folks look at the suspension, coupled with the career year Cabrera had in 2012– not to mention his next best season by far having come in the year previous– and conclude that he took drugs, got better, and is certain to turn back into a pumpkin now that he’s been caught. And frankly, I can’t with any confidence say that there isn’t a chance that we’ll never see the same Melky that we did in 2012– in fact, we probably won’t. I can’t even say that his 2011 won’t ultimately be an aberration as well. But I’m far more concerned about BABIP aspect of it than the PEDs– I mean, isn’t the whole steroid narrative that they’re supposed to make you stronger? Give you more power?
That certainly wasn’t the case for Melky– he hit just 11 home runs in his suspension-shortened 2012. And it certainly isn’t the case, if you look at league average BABIP numbers through the PED era of the late-90s and early-2000s, that players being juiced up appears to lead to a higher percentage of balls in play falling for hits. To me, that means there’s reason enough not to completely dismiss the notion that Cabrera changed something about his approach or his swing, and that maybe some not insignificant level of BABIP skill he displayed in the last two seasons is genuine.
And even if not, it remains an shrewdly calculated risk for the Jays to be hoping the answer isn’t as simple as the reductive “no PEDs, no production” line. Especially when you factor in the money.
I’m sure it will never stop feeling weird to suggest that a sum like $8-million isn’t a crapload of money, but in terms of an MLB payroll, it’s really not. Especially a payroll that now looks like it may genuinely reach north of $120-million. Cabrera’s deal will take up just one fifteenth of what the club spends on salaries in 2013, and the $8-million figure means that the club isn’t even paying him to be average– the cost of one win above replacement on the free agent market is generally cited as being in the neighbourhood of $4- to $4.5-million, though Cleveland president Mark Shapiro recently said placed the figure way up at $9-million.
Say what you will about the accuracy of those figures– the wide variation makes clear that it can certainly be debated, and I’ve never seen the value in taking that stuff as gospel– the fact is, the Jays are getting a major discount on a guy capable of the production Melky’s provided in the past two seasons, especially by getting Cabrera to agree to two-year deal, and much of it is down to a PED stink that, to me, isn’t nearly as troubling as it may seem on the surface.
It’s a fantastic deal, all things considered– doubly so considering the beautiful shit fits and convoluted logical twists its sure to provoke as the local hacks try to wrap their minds around it. It’s one that will hardly kill the club even as a worst case scenario, and one that was entirely made possible by the Marlins deal that preceded it.
To a free agent like Cabrera, having a shot at being a part of a fantastic, winning team matters. Playing in a very hitter-friendly park in your first season post-PED-suspension surely doesn’t hurt either, but it’s not nearly so easy to envision Cabrera agreeing to join the Jays had it not been for the reinforcements brought in this week, and the commitment ownership has shown. That’s precisely why Alex Anthopoulos had his back against the wall this winter, before he pulled a Marlins fire sale out of his ass.
The Jays now have a fantastic pair of switch hitters at the top of their lineup– two former NL batting champs, if you can fucking believe it!– which should provide ridiculous opportunities for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to drive in runs.
Shit, even Adam Lind and whoever they bring in as his platoon partner (Jonny Gomes you very much?) will get in on the action, assuming the club goes in that direction. You could even DH Rajai Davis against left-handed pitching and be entirely fine. Crazier still, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus (who, if he has another 2010 in him– not that he has to– look the fuck out) were perhaps being counted on to be the third and fourth best hitters on the club as of a week ago, and are now looking at hitting sixth and seventh in the order. And Travis d’Arnaud is coming. Aaaaand whether it’s Izturis or Bonifacio who ends up taking most of the at-bats at second base, they’ll get on base a decent enough amount to get things going again with the ridiculous, video game dream top of the order– two batting champs, followed by two 40 home run sluggers.
Best of all, there’s so much talent, one through nine, that everything doesn’t even have to break right. Down years out of half of these guys will still give you a very nice lineup, and it’s still only November 16th– can anybody outside of the front office really believe at this point that Alex is ready to put his feet up? We may still see a DH move. We may still see Ricky Romero pushed down into the fifth starter’s slot.
I mean… holy shit, pinch me!