As a 2015 free agent, Melky Cabrera carries a great deal of uncertainty, but he is one of the more intriguing options among outfielders. For the time being, the Mets are trying to fill the vacuum left by Chris Young's release with Matt den Dekker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Dilson Herrera's leap from Double-A shows that the Mets are not averse to aggressive promotions, but the organization could look to acquire a veteran outfielder like Melky Cabrera during the offseason.
Cabrera was connected to the Mets the last time he was a free agent in 2012, when he was coming off a 50-game suspension for using PEDs. He put up 4.5 fWAR in 501 plate appearances with the San Francisco Giants in 2012, the highest total of his career, and he seemed likely to command a four- or five-year contract in the offseason. Had he not been suspended, he may have received a contract similar to the four-year, $60 million deal the Mets gave to Curtis Granderson last offseason. Instead, the 2012 All-Star Game MVP tried to avoid his suspension with a phony website and the Giants chose not to activate him in the playoffs when he was eligible.
After watching the Giants sweep the Detroit Tigers in the World Series without him, Cabrera accepted a two-year, $16 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays, but irritation in his left knee limited him to 372 plate appearances in 2013. When he did play, he looked closer to the -1.4 fWAR player he was in 2010 with the Braves. He underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor from his spinal cord during the offseason and posted a sturdy 2.5 fWAR in 2014 before being shut down due to a broken pinkie.
Melky has a few things in common with Marlon Byrd, as they were both hit with 50-game PED suspensions during the 2012 season and they both lost out on a great deal of money because of it. Byrd signed a minor league deal with the Mets in 2013 and rebuilt his value before signing a two-year, $16 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason. Cabrera did not rebound as quickly as Byrd did, but he has rewarded the Blue Jays for being patient with him.
The similarities between Byrd's and Cabrera's contracts reflect the negative impacts of their PED suspensions, but not their large gap in age. As a 30-year-old entering free agency, Cabrera will command much more than Byrd did as a 36-year-old in 2013. Considering the weakness of the 2015 free agent outfield class, Cabrera might come close to the four-year deal he likely would have had in 2012 had he not been suspended, though a lot depends on Toronto's decision to give him a qualifying offer.
In the August 6 article, "What To Do With Melky Cabrera?" Kyle Matte emphasized the need for the Blue Jays to extend a qualifying offer to Cabrera and discussed a few potential scenarios that could stem from an offer. If Cabrera rejects a qualifying offer and finds little interest on the market, he might have to take a surprisingly low deal, which is exactly what happened to Nelson Cruz last offseason.
The ideal scenario for the Mets would begin with Cabrera rejecting a qualifying offer from Toronto and then meeting a cold market. With a protected first-round pick, the Mets would have much less competition for Cabrera's service. If he costs a first-round pick, however, the Mets' interest might wane.
Cruz is set to be a free agent in 2015, and while he has received a lot of attention due to a career-high in home runs, he has only accrued 6.8 fWAR over the last four years, while Cabrera has posted 9.8. Cruz and Cabrera have very similar marks in wRC+ and wOBA, but they reached those numbers with different approaches.
Cabrera has kept his line drive and contact rates above career levels while swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone. Cruz's .516 slugging percentage is a bit higher than his .499 career average, but it looks much better when compared to the league average mark of .388, which has dropped for the second year in a row.
Neither Cruz nor Cabrera has added much defensive value this season. Cruz has often been used as a designated hitter; Cabrera's -7.7 UZR/150 is an improvement over last year's -14.8 mark, but still below average. Though Cabrera was limited by a left knee injury last season, his -6.8 RngR in 2013 was actually better than his current -10.4, which is a bit puzzling. Cabrera's arm has been largely responsible for the small recovery he has made in defensive value this year, illustrated by a 3.5 ARM number that has rebounded from a -1 mark in 2013.
Cabrera, once a solid defensive center fielder with the Yankees, was hampered in 2013 by a tumor on his spinal cord that team doctors thought was related to his various leg ailments. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos wondered for how long and to what degree the tumor was limiting Cabrera.
"It didn’t make any sense for someone who has played centre [sic] field quite a bit to all of a sudden have the weakness in his legs that he was having and moving the way he was. . . I’m not glad that we found something, but I’m glad it can be corrected and we should be good to go," said Anthopoulos.
It's strange that Cabrera's RngR decreased after surgery, but given the consensus between team doctors and management that a spinal cord tumor was affecting Cabrera's level of play, it's prudent to wait and see how he performs in the future before declaring that he's done being a passable defender.
After compensating for 10% annual inflation, Dave Cameron's rough estimate of $6 million per win last offseason will be closer to $6.6 million this year, which means that Melky would need to produce about nine wins to be "worth" a contract like Granderson's. Fifteen million dollars per year seems high for a player who would likely cost a first-round pick, so let's use Kyle Matte's $12.8 million projected annual salary instead, which is based on Cabrera's cumulative three-year WAR. If Melky receives a four-year, $51.2 million contract, he would have to produce at least 7.7 WAR to justify the signing, which he is capable of doing if he can keep up his 2014 level of production.
Melky's injury history, PED suspension, and probable qualifying offer make him an uncertain acquisition, but he's still one of the better options in a weak free agent class. He just turned 30 in August, so he's two years younger than Granderson was when he signed with the Mets. Cabrera's baserunning has recovered in 2014 after hitting a low point in a 2013 season marred by leg injuries. If nothing else, Melky could add some stability to the top of the Mets' lineup, as he has all year for the Blue Jays.
With outfield prospects like Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo, the Mets might choose to avoid signing another free agent outfielder, especially if Cabrera rejects a qualifying offer and the team's first-round pick isn't protected. If the Mets do finish with one of the 10 worst records in baseball, they might find it hard to watch Cabrera sign a below-market-value contract with another team.