In this guest post from Kyle Matte, he looks at the value that Melky Cabrera has provided the Blue Jays this year, and whether it’s realistic, or reasonable, for the club to make him a Qualifying Offer after the season. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @KyleMatte.
Statistics as of the end of the day, July 28th.
Through four months, Melky Cabrera has been the rock in a Jays line-up packed with injury, inconsistency, and underwhelming performance. He’s appeared in 106 of 107 games for the second place Blue Jays, leading off for 16 while Jose Reyes missed the first half of April with a wonky hamstring, and hitting third for nine games with Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind on the disabled list with lower body injuries. Save for one late inning pinch-hit opportunity in the nine-hole, Melky has spent his remaining 80 games in the two-spot, providing a line drive pumping bridge between the speedy Reyes and the dynamic Dominican duo.
For fans who watched their fair share of the embarrassment that was the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays, this comes as a shock. Melky was a shell of his former self, at least in the 88 games he was able to get himself into, looking more like an old man nearing retirement – Raul Ibanez comes to mind – than a 28 year old coming off back-to-back outstanding seasons with the Royals and Giants. On August 2nd, he was placed on the disabled list with what the team called a left knee strain, and the left fielder wouldn’t play again that season. “Good riddance” was a sentiment shared by many, as Melky was looking like a total waste of the guaranteed 16 million dollars he’d received just nine months prior. A boisterous minority were happy to proclaim him nothing more than a product of performance enhancing drugs, and slammed the General Manager for giving a known cheat who in their view had become lazy and complacent so much money.
Words were swallowed and jaws hit the floor a month later when the team announced Cabrera had undergone surgery to have a benign tumor removed from his spinal cord. It was believed this tumor had been pressing against his nerves, causing pain and weakness in his lower half. To say Melky was a wild card entering the 2014 season would be a massive understatement – no one knew what to expect.
Through 474 plate appearances Melky has produced a .313/.362/.487 slash line, contributing to a .371 wOBA and 134 wRC+. Among qualified MLB left fielders, those figures rank 4th and 5th respectively; thoroughly impressive for a player who was well below average offensively last season. His strikeout rate (11.4%) is the lowest it’s been since 2009 despite an upward trend across baseball, while his walk rate (7.0%) is right about at his career mark of 7.2%. His overall approach has shown improvement, too. If maintained, Melky’s current 43.9% swing rate would be his lowest since 2009, and while fewer swings isn’t necessarily positive, the fact that the decline has come predominantly on pitches outside the zone, is. His current 28.6% O-swing rate would be his lowest since, again, 2009, and is between 4% and 8% lower than his rates over his previous three seasons. Melky has the ability to drive just about anything he can reach, but being more selective is always a good thing.
Melky’s 14 home runs in 2014 have averaged 103.9 miles per hour off the bat, with an average true distance of 393.6 feet (per ESPN). In 2012, his last healthy season, he averaged 104.4 miles per hour and 393.1 feet. In 2011, it was 105.0 mph and 406.9 feet. Furthermore, at 21.1%, his line drive rate has remained consistent with the marks he has established since his breakout 2011 season with the Royals.
In terms of bat speed, Cabrera’s still got it.
Things aren’t all chocolate and roses, however. Despite playing arguably the second easiest defensive position on the diamond, Melky remains a below average defender. His UZR/150 in 2014 currently sits at -10.1, and while that’s a significant improvement upon his dismal -14.8 last season, it’s still a far cry from his passable -2.3 UZR/150 in left field for the Giants in 2012 and his -9.8 UZR/150 in center field for the Royals in 2011. He’s passing the eye test a lot better – largely due to the fact, you know, that his legs actually work – but the numbers still don’t particularly like him out there. He ranks 17th in defensive figures among the 20 qualified left fielders, ahead of only Nelson Cruz, Shin-Soo Choo, and Matt Kemp.
With Cabrera’s contract set to expire after the World Series, it creates an interesting profile to project moving forward, both in terms of potential value on a Qualifying Offer and a long-term deal. The left fielder is currently on pace for 3.0 WAR by the ZIPS and Steamer projection systems, and given that both are forecasting a slight improvement in rest-of-season defense and a decline in rest-of-season offense, the figure seems fair.
Referring back to my pre-season article on Colby Rasmus and his impending Qualifying Offer (aside: boy, that “floor” of 2 WAR I assumed sure seems absurd now), we can gain a rough estimate for average annual salary based on cumulative three-year WAR. The total for Melky would be 4.5 (2012) – 0.9 (2013) + 3.0 (2014) = 6.6 WAR, which correlates to an annual salary of around 12.8 million. This equates to a 60% raise on Cabrera’s previous salary, and while some may ask whether the Blue Jays can afford it with their freshly tightened purse strings, the better question may be, can they afford not to?
I’ve been a strong supporter of Rasmus for years now, but with each passing game it’s looking more and more like his days in a Blue Jays uniform are numbered. His defense has been shaky – both visually and statistically – and outside of the occasional home run, his offensive contributions have been unacceptable. He’s proven to be more of a platoon bat that requires a shield from same-side pitching than a true full-time starter, and in a healthy lineup it would be hard to argue he deserves to be hitting any higher than seventh.
Rasmus is a nice piece possessing potential, but when that potential starts costing eight figures per year, it’s probably time to let someone else try to tap into it.
Rasmus’ likely departure makes retaining Melky Cabrera essential, as an outfield that has Kevin Pillar in left and Anthony Gose in center – both as regulars – is simply an impossible scenario to justify. Should Pillar manage to mend the bridges he appears to have burned within the organization’s hierarchy, he and Gose could prove to be a more than adequate platoon in centerfield in 2015. The pair would provide an excellent internal stop-gap, earning around a million dollars combined while keeping the seat warm for the rapidly ascending Dalton Pompey.
Returning to Cabrera; the first step in the process is the aforementioned Qualifying Offer. The value of the Offer is the average of the 125 highest salaries in baseball that year. In 2012 that was 13.3 million, and last winter, it was 14.1 million. If we assume a similar 6% increase, the figure is likely to fall around 14.9 million for free agents this offseason. Completely coincidentally, the combined 2014 salary of Cabrera and Rasmus totals 15 million. There have been some whispers that the Blue Jays would be unable to make a Qualifying Offer to any of their free agents in fear they might accept, but if you consider the salaries of the outfield in a vacuum, the organization could theoretically afford to make the Offer to one without seeing a net increase in payroll. Of course, this ignores the 6 million dollar raise awaiting Jose Reyes, but if Anthopoulos needs an angle with ownership, there’s a decent start here.
By making the Offer, Anthopoulos would lock the Blue Jays into one of three outcomes. The first: that Melky accepts. It would be an awfully large sum on paper, but the saying “There’s no such thing as a bad one year deal” exists for a reason. Last offseason, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs looked into the value of a win on the free agent market and came up with a rough estimate of 6.0 million per WAR, while also noting the 10% or so annual inflation across free agency over the past decade. That would place the going rate at 6.6 million per WAR this offseason. Should Melky sign the Qualifying Offer at 14.9 million, the outfielder would need to produce 2.3 WAR — a plateau he’s reached in 3 of the last 4 years — for the club to get “fair” market value.
Outcome number two would be that Melky declines the Qualifying Offer and signs elsewhere, guaranteeing the Blue Jays a compensatory draft pick at the end of the first round. This would allow the Blue Jays to sign a different free agent with attached compensation — like Nelson Cruz, James Shields, or even Jon Lester — without crippling their draft bonus pool, or, plug Cabrera’s void with a non-qualified free agent or trade acquisition and enter a second consecutive amateur draft with a pair of high picks.
The third possible outcome, and probably the most desirable for both Blue Jays fans and the organization, would be for Melky to decline the Qualifying Offer and find himself in a depressed market. Should Cabrera and his agent discover that the grass isn’t always greener — like so many Qualified free agents did nine months ago — Alex Anthopoulos and friends would find themselves in the highly enviable position of possessing a massive amount of leverage in the market. The Blue Jays would have the opportunity to float a multi-year deal to retain the services of Cabrera in his remaining prime years at a below market rate.
As an example, let’s envision a scenario in which after finding lukewarm interest in his services due to the draft pick noose, Melky Cabrera signs a 3 year deal worth a total of 38.4 million to return to Toronto — the 12.8 million dollar annual salary I had estimated. Taking the projected 6.6 million per win discussed earlier, Melky would only need to produce 5.8 WAR over the course of the deal for the club to get “fair” market value. There’s a very real possibility that he comes up short as his defense falters and his bat is unable to sustain the production; but alternatively, it’s not difficult to see Cabrera reaching and/or exceeding 5.8 WAR in three years with relative ease, and it’s increasingly rare for teams to find surplus value in free agency.
Regardless of which result comes to fruition, it’s increasingly clear that the Blue Jays need to make Melky Cabrera a Qualifying Offer if they can’t get him under contract even sooner. He’s proven invaluable to this organization during its somewhat surprising playoff push, and the front office is in a position to protect both the short and long term aspirations in one fell swoop. Don’t screw this one up, Jays.