Return of the Melk-Man

“He may not look like a classic corner outfielder, but Cabrera can play, and I think Braves fans will be pleasantly surprised with what he offers.”

– Dave Cameron on Melky Cabrera, February 15, 2010

Well, Dave was probably right that Braves fans were “surprised” with Melky Cabrera’s 2010 performance, but I’m not sure the surprise was all that pleasant. Having seemingly gained forty pounds between the Yankees 2009 World Series victory and Atlanta’s 2010 Opening Day, Cabrera followed his reasonable 1.7 WAR 2009 with a combination of a .294 wOBA and awful defense all over the outfield to end up one full win below replacement level for the 2010 season. Dave wasn’t the only one: check out this fool who thought Melky Cabrera was a three-win player who would have made signing, say, Johnny Damon pointless for the Braves.

So when Melky signed with the Kansas City Royals this past off-season, there was very little excitement, to say the least. With a few exceptions, the signing was panned. Given that it came in close proximity to the fulfillment of The Jeff Francoeur Prophecy and that it was for only $1.25 million, it didn’t get all that much attention. However, while the pitching has been awful, the Royals’ offense has been right in the middle of the pack so far, and Melky’s career-high .349 wOBA and 3.0 WAR have been a big part of that. What does this mean for his near future?

The biggest part of Cabrera’s contribution this season has been his offense, with ihs 118 wRC+ (.295/.333/456) being by far the best of his career. This was understandably unexpected, but it is important to keep in mind (as has been pointed out before) that Cabrera is only 26 this season despite having seemingly been around forever. His numbers with the Yankees have to be put in the context of Cabrera being very young for a major leaguer, at ages when almost all offensive skills are still developing for most players. The biggest component of Melky’s offensive improvement this season has obviously been his power: he currently has a .161 ISO and 11 home runs (the 23 doubles have been nice, too). Going forward, of course, we’d expect some regression to the mean and past performance. However, at 26 most hitters still have some room to grow in terms of home run power, and Melky’s Hit Tracker data doesn’t indicate excessive “luck” so far this season.

While Cabrera’s .333 on-base percentage isn’t bad (especially in this run environment), there has to be a bit of concern about it going forward. Cabrera has always been a bit of a free swinger, and after posting close to league walk rates in the prior two seasons, he is down to about five percent this season — quite poor. On the other hand, while he is leaning on a .295 batting average, his batted ball profile doesn’t indicate that his .319 BABIP is exceptionally high, and Cabrera has always been able to make contact as manifested in his low strikeout rates. No, Melky probably isn’t this good overall, but then again, his true talent is probably closer to this than it is to the 2010 disaster. Something a bit lower than ZiPS current RoS projection is probably reasonable: a wOBA between .320 and .330, with a triple slash around .275/.325/.410 seems about right: a few runs above league average overall.

Melky’s defense is a big question. His numbers in this season’s small sample aren’t all that bad, but his past history and current scouting reports from fans indicate that as a center fielder, he’s a better corner outfielder. Being generous to Melky would probably put him at -5 in center and +5 in the corners. Still, with a playable bat and decent baserunning, saying that Melky’s true talent is about 2 WAR seems fair.

The question of what the Royals should do with Melky at this point is an interesting one. For one thing, Melky still is under team control for 2012, he’s in his last arbitration year. Given his past history, it’s hard to say how much he would get in arbitration, but something $5 million seems like a fair guess. That’s not bad for league average player, and with the exception than Alex Gordon, the Royals don’t exactly have a promising group of outfielders now or going into 2012. Lorenzo Cain, who came over in the Zack Greinke trade, probably should have started the year in the majors and should probably be up now to see if he can actually cut it as a full-timer, but after that, there isn’t much looming on the horizon. Wil Myers is still a stud prospect, but probably won’t be ready for the majors next spring, David Lough looks like he would be lucky to cut it as a fourth outfielder, and Jeff Francouer has been utterly awful after a hot start (I’m as shocked as you guys!).

In other words, if the Royals can keep his salary reasonably cheap (under $5 million, given the Royals’ situation) for next season, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to bring Melky back to play in one of the corners alongside Cain and Gordon. He’s a better choice than Francoeur, assuming the money is similar. On the other hand, being a better value than Francouer also means he’s probably got more trade value right now. Although the Royals have some young talent that should be contribute over the next few seasons, they aren’t going to be contending in 2012. There is something to be said for being respectable, but Melky isn’t going to make that much of a difference. Keeping him under the right circumstances might be justifiable, but if some team wants to give up something like a decent C prospect for him, the Royals should probably do it.

Royals General Manager Dayton Moore has drawn a lot of criticism (and I’ve contributed my share) for his moves on the major league level, and much of it has been justified. However, whether he saw it coming or just got lucky, Moore deserves credit for picking up Melky on the cheap just in time for what is probably a career year. The Royals should be actively looking to trade Cabrera for a reasonable return, but given his projection and the Royals’ outfield situation, bringing him back for one year at a reasonable salary wouldn’t be the worst decision they could make, either.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

25 Responses to “Return of the Melk-Man”

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  1. Daniel says:

    Minor peripheral point – why so low on David Lough? He looks to be the second coming of David DeJesus and has improved significantly in his 2nd tour in Omaha.

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    • Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I wondered if people would mention that. A couple of years ago I was pretty high on Lough. But the last two years in a very-friendly environment in AAA he’s only been about league average overall. And keep in mind that the PCL is out of control for hitters this season even more than in the past. If you look at his wRC+, it’s exactly the same for this season as last season. A .160 ISO in AAA isn’t that impressive in the first place, and when you’re in a league full of launching pads, even less so. Despite the low K rate, he rarely walks, and that’s been a constant.

      The bat might play in the majors if he was a really good defensive center fielder… but everything I”ve read says he’s more of a corner guy.

      As for the DeJesus comparisoin: At 25, Lough is a league average hitter with a bad walk rate and a .160 ISO who plays corner outfield in a ultra-hitter friendly minor league. At 25, David DeJesus put up 4 WAR with above-average hitting 110 wRC+, with an average walk rate (8%) and almost as much power (.152 ISO) in a park that deflates HR rates) while playing good CF defense (+7.6 UZR)… in the majors.

      That is why why I’m not high on either the comparison or Lough in general.

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  2. RoyalsFan says:

    Why in the world would someone think it’s a good idea to trade a major league player capable of starting on most MLB teams for a C level prospect that if lucky, projects out to be a 5th rotation starter, relief pitcher or bench position player? What you have prospects for is so they turn into players just like Cabrera. Everyone would be thrilled if Cain could come up and get the same stats as Cabrara. But just because he’s not recently a top prospect, Cabrara is suddenly preceived as trade bait? It’s all a trick of the mind. A young good MLB player is a young good MLB player regardless of how many years ago they were a top prospect or what team they play for. Those are guys you sign longer term if you can get them at a reasonable price.

    The only reason to trade him is if you can’t sign him long term and even then the Royals would be smart to wait until next year unless they get blown away with an offer for top level prospects or a pitcher with a proven record of being able to start for a MLB team (not likely to happen). With one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, they don’t need the cost savings.

    I always find it funny how people who write about sports turn crazy talking about trades and try to convince others that just because a team is not in contention, it makes sense to trade away their good players for a contention team’s scraps. You have to ask yourself what’s in it for the non-contending team? The Royals have enough prospects and will continue to stock pile more prospects with high draft picks. What the Royals need now is not even more prospects, but players capable of starting for a major league team.

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    • Daniel says:

      The problem with what you’re saying is that Melky isn’t a “good young MLB player”. Eventually, midnight will strike for Cinderella.

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      • ecp says:

        Actually, THIS is the problem…the excessively-broad assumption that Melky Cabrera just sucks because he had a lousy year at Atlanta, and that therefore this can’t last. Did you not read the article? He’s not Jeff Francoeur who has demonstrated over and over that no, it’s not going to last. He was un-awful while still quite young with the Yankees, and progressive improvement often comes with age. Why can’t it for Cabrera?

        I’m not a huge fan of his by any stretch, but I have difficulty understanding the automatic hate when it doesn’t seem like it’s justifiable coming from anyone other than a Braves fan.

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    • EspeciallyK says:

      Nobody in the world wants to trade Melky for some other team’s “scraps.” He is trade bait b/c the Royals desperately need starting pitching, while they have a guy like Cain who could take over for Melky in CF (better defensively and OPSing over .900 in AAA). They would make the trade to try and improve their weakest part of the team..not just to trade him.

      Good try though.

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    • John R. says:

      If you have to sign Melky to keep him for years that actually matter, then you’re getting him at market price (no surplus value). Low-payroll teams like the Royals can only contend by paying guys less than what they’re really worth, which you do with prospects and successful scrap-heap acquisitions. A back of the rotation starter who makes league minimum is worth more to the Royals than Cabrera in 2013, because the former gives you more than you pay for.

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    • NJ Royals fan says:

      I read it as a decent C as in catching prospect, not C level prospect. Melky has been good but I don’t see him as the long term answer in center, that I hope is Cain. Move him at the deadline, that’s why we got him. Hos and Moose are going through growing pains but have shown some flashes, Gordon may have finally found his groove and Escobar and his D at .250 work for me. Now we need a couple of pitchers to pan out and a catcher.

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      • RoyalsFan says:

        My mistake. I reread it. I think you are right, it is Catching prospect. I’m not really sure there are that many catching prospects anymore. Only one I know of is Jesus Montero who is more of a hitter. We already have a good defensive C prospect in Manuel Pina.

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    • moonraker says:

      Yeah, but what if he gets fat again?

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  3. Temo says:

    I hope Melky collapses.

    -scorned Braves fan

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  4. Gordon Brown says:

    The Royals need to be thinking toward the next couple years as much as possible. Cabrera will never be more valueable to KC as he will be at this deadline, and there is a lot of value in giving highly touted prospects a change of scenery(see Felipe Paulino, Jorge DeLaRosa, Carlos Gonzalez, et al) so if Melky can be flipped for a James Macdonald type return GMDM should be all over it.

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  5. I would love to see him in an Indians uniform. Choo might only be back for a few weeks, and meanwhile Travis Buck and Austin Kearns are… what’s the word… oh yeah, unacceptable. When (if) Choo returns to form, Melky could slide to left since Brantley is not setting the world alight or anything.

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    • Max says:

      This seems reasonable. When Choo returns I think I would keep Brantley in left and move Melky to the bench as a 4th outfielder, but yes.

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  6. PNW Royal says:

    Frenchy has a 108 OPS+ half way through the season, so sample size isn’t such an issue here. He still can’t hit RHP but he’s the same as he always has been while the rest of the league got worse. He should probably be platooned but he certainly hasn’t been awful. Seems like he keeps a runner from taking the extra base every other game or so.

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  7. Raj says:

    I’d like to see the Royals move Frenchy and keep Melky for next season. Melky is just getting into his prime and talent has never been the issue. He hit like gangbusters during spring training and has continued it through the season. If he’s moved, I hope he goes to a team that will play him everyday because he has earned it. I’m curious what he could do in the Red Sox lineup. They’re looking for a corner OF.

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    • RC says:

      No, they’re not really.

      Why is it that everytime a big market team has a prospect playing, the media seems to think they need a seasoned washout? When Pedroia was up the first year, they ‘needed’ a 2b.

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  8. Peter says:

    Just thought I would point out in your “17 Predictions That Will Be Right” one prediction has already been proven incorrect; the Home Run Derby wasn’t boring.

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  9. jj3bagger says:

    As a Braves fan, it was extremely painful to watch his act last year, he was terrible at virtually everything. Thanks for showing up last year in shape. Imagine how much better the Arodys Vizcaino/Melky for Vazquez/Logan trade would look if the Braves had this year’s version of the Melk Man in CF going forward.

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  10. Juancho says:

    I’m in favor of bringing up Cain for CF and platooning Melky and Frenchy in right. Francoeur mashes lefties but can’t hit right-handers at all, and Melky hits righties significantly better than lefties, not only this season but during their careers. They could both probably be signed cheap for 2012-13, and would then be replaced by Myers; they wouldn’t be blocking anyone but him. Cabrera would serve as 4th OF when Cain or Gordon needs a rest; Frenchy could also play left for a few games if needed. I would bet the two of them would add up to 3.5-4 WAR.

    If a team offered something good for either of them, I’d take it, but I would not take just another Vin Mazzaro or Sean O’Sullivan.

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  11. Juancho says:

    Francoeur 2011
    v. LHP wOBA .421 wRC+ 168
    v. RHP wOBA .297 wRC+ 83

    Francoeur career

    v. LHP wOBA .353 wRC+ 114
    v. RHP wOBA .302 wRC+ 81

    So basically this season Frenchy is pummelling left-handers much harder than usual, while hitting right-handers the same way he always does. This exceptional performance is likely to be a fluke, but he’s normally an above-average hitter vs. lefties.

    Cabrera 2011

    v. LHP wOBA .316 wRC+ 96
    v. RHP wOBA .354 wRC+ 122

    Cabrera career

    v. LHP wOBA .302 wRC+ 81
    v. RHP wOBA .320 wRC+ 93

    Melky may have made a genuine improvement this season, as he’s hitting better from both sides of the plate. This season he’s average against lefties and above-average against righties.

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