Brian Sabean has fired his first salvo of the 2011 offseason, acquiring outfielder Melky Cabrera from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and minor-league pitcher Ryan Verdugo.
Before we can even begin to analyze this trade, I believe we have to divorce the names of the players from their actual production. Melky Cabrera has been something of a punching bag among writers and analysts for a variety of reasons, ranging from his poor shape to his lousy attitude to awful production in 2008 and 2010.
Cabrera is, of course, coming off the best season of his life. He finished a remarkable fourth in hits in the American League. Part of this is the less robust production of singles hitting as opposed to high power or on-base percentage, but he still finished with a .349 wOBA, a 118 wRC+ and 4.2 WAR in his age 26 season.
There are certainly reasons to believe Cabrera will regress in 2012. His BABIP of .332 is a career high and there is little reason to believe he is like an Ichiro Suzuki or a Matt Kemp and can routinely sustain such good results on balls in play. His power level (44 doubles, 18 home runs, a .162 ISO) was also previously unseen, blasting his old career highs out of the water.
This would be a particularly massive red flag if Cabrera were just finishing his age 32 season like a certain Giants center fielder one year ago. But Cabrera will be a mere 27 years old for much of the 2012 season, putting him in his prime for the year of control the Giants now own and any potential contract extension the Giants may offer.
So while the BABIP may regress, it is hardly a guarantee the other components that made Cabrera a good hitter will fall with it. His 2011 HR/FB rate of 9.8% is something he’s done before — 2009, with New York, he hit 10.3% of fly balls for home runs. His .162 isolated power is a mere 14 points above his previous career high (again, 2009). His contact rate was exceptionally high as usual, with his 13.3% strikeout rate ranking in the top third of qualified players.
Even if (when?) his BABIP slips back to the .300 range, the Giants are probably looking at about a .285/.315/.415 hitter when all is said and done. As underwhelming as that sounds, the resulting .730 OPS (or, if you prefer, a roughly .321 wOBA) would tie him exactly for third place among Giants hitters (300 or more plate appearances) with Cody Ross; if we decrease the threshold to 200 or more plate appearances, then Pat Burrell sneaks in as well. Cabrera won’t be a great hitter, but he is a near certainty to improve on the Giants NL-worst group from 2011.
Questions linger about Cabrera’s ability to play the field, and the prospect of him as a full-time center fielder is a scary one. Poor ratings from defensive metrics aside, Cabrera simply doesn’t appear to have the body or the speed to handle the rigors of center field. If the Giants choose to use him there, he will almost certainly be a downgrade from Andres Torres. The Giants could play him in left field, where he should be serviceable, but then, of course, the value of his average-to-good bat decreases by a fair margin.
With the pitching staff the Giants possess, though, it may not matter as much as it usually would. Last year’s Giants ranked second in the league in strikeouts per nine innings and fourth in ground ball rate. As such, the Giants keep the ball away from their outfielders more than other teams, and the impact of Cabrera’s poor defense shouldn’t be seen as much as it would with a fly ball or contact-oriented staff.
The key player heading to Kansas City, Jonathan Sanchez, was a member of that vaunted 2009 Giants rotation and has a 3.07 ERA in a championship season to his name. As much as analytical types ignore ERA, such a performance will linger in the memories of fans for a long time, particularly those fans who reside west of the Rocky Mountains. Still, Sanchez has the highest walk rate in the majors, and as Dave Cameron points out, his surface production doesn’t hold up under deeper analysis.
The Giants will have to find a starter to replace Sanchez, but between Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong, the rotation should endure. The hitters are coming off an 83 wRC+ season, ranking between the Twins and the Mariners, constant sources of offensive offense last season. The Giants will need competent bats to get back to the postseason. It’s easy to read the name Melky Cabrera and laugh or shrug him off, but the performance he showed as a 26-year-old is more than enough to give San Francisco confidence he can be the first brick in the rebuilding of the Giants’ lineup.