Melky Cabrera is once again a free-agent. After a two-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays concluded, Cabrera looks to be in line for a significant raise. That wasn’t the case last time Cabrera was a free-agent. It looked as though Cabrera was on his way to earning a massive deal in 2012, but a positive PED test derailed any chance of that. He signed with the Blue Jays on a cheap two-year, $16 million. During year one, it looked as if maybe the drugs were the reason behind surge. However, it was revealed late in the year that Cabrera had been playing with a benign tumor on his back. His second year went much better. Cabrera’s power returned, as did his ability to hit for average.
Though he’s heading into free agency on a much higher note this time around, there’s still some concern considering his recent history. Should Cabrera be looked at as a safe option, or are there too many warning signs?
It seems foolish to look at Cabrera’s numbers over the past four years and think he’s in for a decline. In his case, though, there are other circumstances we have to consider. Cabrera’s breakout took place in back in 2011, and seemed to continue into 2012. It was at that point that he tested positive for PEDs and missed 50 games. While that certainly called his performance into question, he seemed to erase that with a strong 2014.
That leaves Cabrera’s down 2013 as the only big negative as he heads into free agency. That season is generally written off to injury, as Cabrera seemed to be clearly impacted by leg and back pain all season. It wasn’t until September that the team discovered the tumor, and Cabrera had the surgery. He basically played through the entire season with the injury.
The tumor caused leg pain and fatigue for Cabrera most of the year. That seems to be reflected in his numbers. His infield hit percentage fell to just 2.9% in 2013. His career figure in the category is 7.1%. Cabrera has also posted solid bunt for hit numbers since his 2011 breakout, the only exception being 2013. Yet another sign that perhaps his legs weren’t at full strength.
General manager Alex Anthopoulous described the situation prior to the start of the 2014 season. “[Cabrera] hit .279 and he wasn’t able to get the slugging percentage up because he couldn’t get to second base. There were a bunch of times that there should have been extra-base hits for him just because his speed was so compromised.” Anthopoulous added that doctors were amazed Cabrera was able to play through the injury.
There were also two other areas where Cabrera’s legs/back may have sunk his production. His power production cratered. Cabrera’s fly ball rate actually took a small step forward, but his home run rate was a measly 3.2%. It was either incredibly bad luck, or Cabrera’s injuries prevented him from getting enough loft on the ball. Oddly, this isn’t reflected in his fly ball distance. That number remained consistent, according to Baseball Heat Maps.
The other area was Cabrera’s awful pitch values against the fastball. Since his turnaround, Cabrera has been able to crush fastballs. After posting two great seasons against the pitch, Cabrera saw his pitch value against the fastball drop to -0.5 in 2013. Considering he was able to recapture his success against fastballs in 2014, it’s reasonable to think his injuries prevented him from getting around on pitches.
If you’re willing to write off his 2013 season to an awful injury, Cabrera looks like a legitimate player. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest 2013 was completely ruined due to his tumor. Most of those numbers rebounded in 2014, confirming that theory. Cabrera’s performance in 2014 was also the first time since he was suspended that he proved his performance wasn’t drug-induced. All those signs point to Cabrera being just as good in 2015.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.