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Insider

Cabrera a worthwhile gamble for Jays

11/16/2012

The Toronto Blue Jays appeared to be done after the big, expensive trade with the Miami Marlins earlier this week, but I'm guessing GM Alex Anthopoulos couldn't pass on a good deal when he saw one, reportedly signing Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million deal that's under half of what Cabrera would have made had he not failed a PED test in July.

Cabrera is a contact hitter whose value has jumped in the last two years because more of the balls he has put into play have fallen in for hits. He's not selective, with modest walk rates, and he doesn't have much power. But he has very good plate coverage and generates lots of line drives (which are very likely to become hits) and ground balls (more likely than fly balls to become hits). For Toronto, he'll play left field, where he should have average range and add value with his arm. He was dogged by makeup questions even beyond the failed test, but those things tend to disappear when you're playing well.

The Cabrera signing also gives the Jays cover to send Anthony Gose to Triple-A Buffalo this year. Gose is a plus runner and fielder who has made big swing adjustments but is still too impatient and struggles badly to pick up breaking stuff; a Triple-A stint will allow him to develop in a sane hitter's environment. The net gain for Toronto is probably in the range of three wins over the passel of mediocrities the team used in left field during 2011 -- more if Cabrera can pick up where he left off in 2012, which I doubted even before his suspension became public.

I generally avoid being too involved in analyzing the specific salaries involved in free-agent deals because the dollar value of a player's production is tied to things we don't or can't know, like how much an extra win is worth to that specific franchise, or roughly how many games the team is going to win in each season of the contract.

Every team has its own revenue function: wins determine revenues, but one extra win is worth more to the Baltimore Orioles than it is to the Tampa Bay Rays, but probably less than it is to the Los Angeles Dodgers -- and a team's 75th win is likely to be worth less than the same franchise's 90th win. The Blue Jays look like a team that's going to win 85-plus games, so the wins Cabrera likely provides will be worth a lot, but the variance in his performance makes it a little tricky.

Just using Fangraphs' WAR for a shortcut, the version of Cabrera we have seen in his career, up to and including his disastrous 2010 season in Atlanta, wasn't worth close to the $8 million a year he'll receive from Toronto in each year of the new contract. The Blue Jays are betting that the previous version of Cabrera is gone and that he can at least be something close to what he was in 2011, when he had his first of two big jumps in his BABIP (from .288 to .322) and was worth just over four wins above replacement, a number that would make him a bargain at his salary.

His BABIP jumped again (to .379) in 2012, but that isn't going to be taken seriously because he was caught using testosterone. However, if he suddenly becomes, say, a .350 BABIP guy with no other change in his skills, the Jays just got an All-Star on the clearance rack. A 10 percent chance of that, plus maybe a 40 percent chance that he can perform as he did in 2011, and say only a 25 percent chance that he goes back to being a waste of a roster spot almost certainly adds up to more than $8 million in expected value for the Blue Jays -- unless the whole team tanks or the value of a win to Toronto is far lower than I think it is.