Major League Baseball suspended Melky Cabrera for 50 games after he tested positive for testosterone, a substance banned under the league’s Joint Drug Policy. The suspension is immediate, meaning Cabrera won’t be seen in the orange and black, patrolling left field and accumulating hits, for the rest of the season. After their loss yesterday to the Nationals, coupled with the Dodgers win over the Pirates, the Giants fell out of first place in the National League West for the first time since late June. Losing Cabrera will hurt the Giants as they battle the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks for the division title, and try to stay in the hunt for a wild card spot.
Cabrera’s has been the Giants’ second-most productive hitter, behind Buster Posey. His season line is .346/.390/.546 for a .387 wOBA and a 146 wRC+. He was a steady and effective presence as the number three hitter in the Giants’ lineup, where he whacked 25 doubles, ten triples and eleven home runs in front of Posey. It will be impossible to replicate that production. The question is how best to replace it.
News reports suggest utility outfielder Gregor Blanco will get the bulk of the playing time in Cabrera’s absence. Blanco played his way into a regular right field job early this season when he batted .315/.427/.457 with a .391 wOBA and 149 wRC+ in May. But those numbers are a distant memory now. In 91 plate appearances in July and August, Blanco has 14 hits and 16 strikeouts. His walk rate remains high, above 14%, after plummeting in June.
The Giants will add two players to the roster before tomorrow’s game against the Padres. My best guess is that they’ll call up Brett Pill and Justin Christian, both right-handed batters, with an eye on a platoon with Blanco, who hits lefty. Christian’s been up and down from Triple-A several times this season, and shown very limited ability to hit major league pitching. In 41 plate appearances, he’s batted .158/.220/.184. His career numbers against lefties show some promise, but he’s had no success at all against southpaws this season. Pill made the Giants’ Opening Day roster and was used in a platoon with Brandon Belt at first base in the first half of the season. But even with Belt’s struggles, Pill did not seize the moment and was eventually sent back to Fresno. In 106 plate appearances, he batted .222/.274/.374 with four home runs. A better option than Christian at the plate, for sure. The only problem is that Pill has played only 47 innings in left field in the majors, all coming this season. An outfield of Pill in left, Angel Pagan in center, and Hunter Pence in right has the capacity to cause serious mayhem for Giants pitchers, particularly those induce a lot of fly balls, like Matt Cain.
The possibility of a Blanco/Pill or Blanco/Christian platoon doesn’t inspire confidence, so let’s think outside the box for a second. The Giants could use Pablo Sandoval at first base and move Brandon Belt to left field. Don’t jump right to the comments to blast me; hear me out.
Marco Scutaro, acquired before the trade deadline, filled in admirably at third base with Sandoval on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. On defense, it’s probably a wash between Sandoval and Scutaro at third, particularly with Joaquin Arias as a late-inning defensive replacement. Scutaro’s batting .320/.361/.427 in 83 plate appearances with the Giants, better than anything Blanco, Pill or Christian has or likely will produce. Even with all his injuries this season, Sandoval is batting .299/.353/.489 with a .356 wOBA and a 125 wRC+. In his career, Sandoval’s played almost 475 innings at first base, mostly in 2008 and 2009, and while he’s nowhere near as good at first as he is at third — or as Brandon Belt is at first — shifting Pablo to first could free up Belt to play left field.
Even with an up-and-down year at the plate, Belt has pulled it together in August and is now up to .267/.362/.405 with a .339 wOBA and 114 wRC+ for the season. He’s credited with 2 defensive runs saved and a 4.7 UZR/150 at first base. We can take those numbers with grain of salt, given the state of defensive metrics, but having watched nearly every inning of every Giants game, I can safely say that Belt is a very solid defensive first baseman.
Belt played a bit more than 240 innings in the outfield last season, and didn’t fare nearly as well by defensive metrics or the eye test. But he’s agile and fairly quick on his feet. With an additional year of major league playing time, it’s not ridiculous to think that Belt could play a reasonably steady left field for the Giants.
When rosters expand on September 1, the Giants could promote outfielders Francisco Peguero from Triple-A and/or Gary Brown from Double-A. Brown is one of the Giants’ most highly-rated prospects and fans have been clamoring for his arrival in San Francisco, even before Cabrera’s suspension. Brown started off slowly this season in Richmond, but has upped his numbers to .280/.346/.395 for the year. He might be a nice fill-in defensively down the stretch, but he’s unlikely to make much of an impact at the plate in a pennant race. Peguero’s had a full year at Triple-A and is batting .273/.297/.403, which reveals an abysmal on-base rate and low power numbers in the otherwise high-octane Pacific Coast League that both Christian and Pill have dominated. So Peguero is an unlikely solution.
And then there are trade options. The name that’s already surfaced is Alfonso Soriano. He cleared waivers but has 10-5 rights and has stated publicly he doesn’t like the weather in San Francisco and wouldn’t approve a trade to the Giants. It’s also unlikely the Giants would agree to pay for much of Soriano’s remaining $40 million in salary.
Other outfielders on teams out of contention, or soon to be out of contention, who could be possible fits in San Francisco include Denard Span of the Twins, Cody Ross of the Red Sox (and, of course, Giants 2010 postseason hero), Scott Hairston of the Mets, and Juan Pierre of the Phillies. It’s unclear (to me) if any of these players passed through waivers, making them available as trade pieces between now and August 31. All would be upgrades over Blanco/Christian/Pill. The question, of course, is whether any are available and if so, at what price?
Losing Cabrera puts the Giants in a tough spot just as their offense was kicking into high gear. In the last 14 days, the Giants lead the majors with 4.7 WAR and are third with a 122 wRC+. Much of that is due to Posey’s second half surge, Belt’s hot streak, and Scutaro’s arrival. But Cabrera played a big part of that, too, as he has in the Giants’ offense all season. The Giants need to think creatively how best to use their available players to fill in the gap. Or they can try acquire a player from a non-contending team. Or both. But the Giants must act quickly because time is ticking on the 2012 season.