During the 2012 regular season, Blue Jays outfielders combined to be worth 4.6 WAR, which was tied for the sixth-lowest total in baseball. Nearly all of that came from Jose Bautista, who was terrific and then injured. The Blue Jays have some young and talented outfielders in-house, and if they were rebuilding, they might guarantee those players some time. But this week’s mega-trade with the Marlins signaled that the Blue Jays would like to win “sooner” instead of “eventually”, so now they’re going to guarantee some time to Melky Cabrera.
On Friday, the Jays signed Cabrera to a two-year contract worth $16 million, according to Enrique Rojas and later confirmed by others. The deal is not yet official — just like Toronto’s other big deal — but there’s little reason to believe it won’t become official after Cabrera’s physical, so now we analyze.
I will refer back once again to a post by Dave Cameron, looking at the 25 best free-agent values, according to Dave Cameron. The FanGraphs audience projected Cabrera for a…two-year contract, worth…$16 million. The clairvoyant live among us. The clairvoyant are us, collectively. The beginning of Cameron’s remarks on Cabrera:
First off, I don’t think Melky would even want a two year deal at this kind of price.
The consensus expectation, as far as I could tell, was that Cabrera would sign somewhere for a year in an effort to re-establish his value before re-entering the market. Cabrera didn’t sign a long-term contract with Toronto, but he signed for twice as long as people thought he would.
Cabrera, as you know, was having a big 2012 season with the Giants. Cabrera, as you know, had his big season with the Giants interrupted and ended by a 50-game PED suspension. Hence the one-year contract expectation. By signing Cabrera, and by signing Cabrera for two years, the Blue Jays are taking a chance, but they aren’t taking that much of one, really.
Adrian Beltre signed a five-year contract with the Mariners immediately after his incredible, historic, 48-dinger season with the Dodgers. Critics said that Beltre would never repeat that season again, but of course, the Mariners weren’t paying him to repeat his 2004 season over and over. If the Mariners paid Beltre as if they were expecting a bunch of his 2004 seasons, he would’ve landed the biggest contract in history. He got $64 million. The Mariners were more paying Beltre to be what he was in 2002-2003, and what the Mariners paid for was what the Mariners got.
Likewise, the Blue Jays aren’t paying Cabrera to repeat his 2012, and they aren’t even paying Cabrera to repeat his 2011. According to our numbers, the last two years Cabrera has been worth 8.8 WAR over 268 games. If the Blue Jays were paying Cabrera to be that sort of player, they might’ve guaranteed $16 million over one year or $32 million over two years. They’ve opted for half that, and Cabrera has accepted.
Do you know what an outfielder needs to be to be worth $16 million over two years as a free-agent acquisition? Something in the general neighborhood of league-average. Even slightly worse than that, or league-average and injury-prone. Cabrera was that sort of player in 2009 with the Yankees, when he posted a 94 wRC+. He was just kind of average at everything. If Cabrera could be that guy for two years, the Blue Jays wouldn’t have made a bad investment, and if Cabrera could be better than that guy for two years, the Blue Jays would have made a solid investment.
To say nothing of the Blue Jays’ current position on the win curve — extra wins to them right now might be worth more than extra wins for many other teams. The Blue Jays see an opportunity to compete in the AL East right now, and they’re going after it, which makes the Cabrera move a lot more interesting than it would be if Cabrera signed for a year with some cellar-dweller. Cabrera could once again play a prominent role in a pennant race.
In Toronto, he and Bautista will flank Colby Rasmus, in an outfield with massive error bars. You might be wondering why Cabrera signed this deal in the first place. For one thing, we don’t know much about Cabrera’s market. For another thing, the Blue Jays are obviously a lot more appealing than they were a week or a month ago. And for a third thing, is it that bad a deal for Cabrera, really? Let’s say he signed somewhere for a year and $6 – 8 million. Let’s say he performed well. What would he expect a year from now? $10 million a season? $12 million a season? And what if he didn’t perform well? Then his value would be shot and his next-year expectations would be drastically lowered. This gives Cabrera some degree of security, and since he’s only 28 years old, it’s not like this is his last chance at a big free-agent contract. If he plays well with the Blue Jays, he’ll get paid well in 2015 and beyond.
For the sake of contract comparison, earlier this week Torii Hunter signed for two years and $26 million. Last year, Carlos Beltran signed for two years and $26 million. Jason Kubel signed for two years and $15 million, and Coco Crisp signed for two years and $14 million. The suspension obviously dealt a blow to Cabrera’s market value, and you can see how the Blue Jays might feel they have a potential steal on their hands. And they probably don’t even have to worry about potential PR fallout since whatever negatives might accompany Cabrera will be offset and then some by the excitement of seeing a front office work aggressively to build a winner. Blue Jays fans aren’t going to be worried about Cabrera’s suspension; they’ll be thinking about how Cabrera might help them get to the playoffs for the first time since Paul Wilson and Nomar Garciaparra were drafted.
We don’t know what effect Cabrera’s PEDs had on his performance. We don’t know if PEDs contributed to his big 2011, with the Royals. We do know that Cabrera’s hitter profile hasn’t really changed that much over the years — he has the same tendencies as ever, and the last two years his BABIP has skyrocketed. Cabrera’s 2010 with the Braves was particularly ugly, and it stands as a reminder that Cabrera isn’t guaranteed to be a decent investment, but if Cabrera meets only his career totals, he’ll be fine, if not better than that. And if he exceeds them, he’ll be an asset paid less than Chone Figgins.
We were waiting to see who might take a chance on Melky Cabrera. The answer is Toronto, where Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. Not that there’s a whole lot here in particular to be afraid of. At two years and $16 million, Cabrera doesn’t even have to be good to be worth it. And Cabrera could be really good.