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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.