After the signing of Russell Martin to a substantial multiyear contract, some people have been quick to write off the return of former Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera. Although Martin is certainly a game-changing addition for the Jays, his place in the lineup does little to address the gaping hole the team currently has in its outfield. The argument for letting Melky walk certainly has validity, there are a few other options on the market, but let’s consider for a moment the case for re-signing him.
Melky is a good hitter and when he’s hot he’s a really good hitter, the problem is that inconsistency has plagued him throughout his career. No one can be 100% positive which version of Melky they’re going to be paying for and the WAR projections reflect this. Steamer has him posting 1.7 WAR next year, almost a full point lower than his 2.6 mark from this year, and a low he hasn’t hit since his one-year stint with the Braves in 2010. However, future projections could be impacted by his bad and injured years, in which case we could reasonably believe that Melky is a candidate to outperform his projection for this year. He has certainly looked much better at the plate since a tumor was removed from his back in 2013, and his solid .301/.351/.430 would seem to support that observation.
Jul 6, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera (53) hits an RBI groundout against the Oakland Athletics in the sixth inning at O.co Coliseum. The Athletics defeated the Blue Jays 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
There is no question that Melky’s above-average contact skills fit perfectly into the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup as well. Melky was able to hit pitches thrown inside the zone 5% better than league average, but it was outside of the zone where he really shined. He was able to make contact with nearly 82% of the pitches he swung at outside of the zone, which is around 15% better than league average O-Contact% of 66%. The value of this lies within the context of the Blue Jays’ lineup, as his ability to foul off close pitches undoubtedly wears on a pitchers stamina and makes it more likely that he will leave a mistake up for Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion.
He also brings value as a switch hitter. Consider for a moment that if he returns and, by some chance, Dioner Navarro also remains on the roster, the Jays could be potentially penciling in lineups that include five switch-hitters. That would give manager John Gibbons a ton of flexibility and also make it much more difficult for opposing managers to plan appropriate late-game matchups with their highly specialized bullpens.
Of course stockpiling switch hitters doesn’t directly lead to the playoffs. The San Diego Padres had eight switch-hitters rotating through their roster last year and they finished well below .500. There are other reasons for why Melky is replaceable on the roster as well. According to defensive metrics, he is a below average defender in left. However, he certainly made some memorable plays there last year and he was second in the AL in assists for leftfielders. So he certainly still has value as an outfielder and doesn’t need to be relegated to a DH role at this point in his career.
His contemporaries on the marketplace also offer some intriguing replacement options. Nick Markakis and Nori Aoki both project to be similar players in terms of WAR and they could potentially cost less because of their age. The problem is that neither offer the kind of upside Melky does and their skillsets come with significantly with less power. Jay Bruce has been floated around as another option that could be considered for the long-term, but he had a terrible down year last year and would certainly cost a pretty penny in the form of prospects.
The fact outstanding is that Melky is perhaps the best leftfield option on the free agent market, and remains open to coming to a team with a significant hole at that position. There is definitely a point at which the cost of retaining him would be too high, but if he lowers his asking price somewhat the front office has alluded to the fact that the money will be there for him. Let’s hope, for the sake of the 2015 Blue Jays and beyond, that both him and the club can come to terms and he can be the solution the team so desperately needs in its outfield.