Pittsburgh Pirates Free Agent Target Profile: Melky Cabrera

After jettisoning Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates might want to consider a full time outfielder to join Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Could Melky Cabrera be a fit?

The Pittsburgh Pirates certainly have options to replace Andrew McCutchen in their outfield.

With Starling Marte presumably sliding over to centerfield, the club can put Sean Rodriguez, Adam Frazier and Josh Harrison — should he remain in Pittsburgh — at corner outfield spots and get by.

Or, should they feel that a full-time outfielder is necessary, Pittsburgh could have its pick of some quality players at bargain prices. One of which is Melky Cabrera.

Jon Heyman agrees:

Profile and Performance

The 33 year-old Cabrera — he’ll turn 34 in August of 2018 — has long been known as a solid, if unspectacular everyday player. Having arrived at that reputation through a consistently solid eye (he carries a career 11.9 percent strikeout rate along with a 6.9 walk rate), and solid double/gap power.

His lone All Star season came during a resounding 2012 season,n one that saw him post a .346/.390/.516 slash line in 113 games with the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Much like the fabled Icarus, Cabrera has not seen such lofty highs since, though he has settled into a very capable player who can still sport 15 HR/35+ 2B potential.

Some would argue that Cabrera’s inconsistent run production — just once has he posted back to back wRC+ seasons of 100 or greater (those years being 2011-2012) makes all of his solid numbers come out in the wash as something more akin to “average.” True, that label is also felt when looking at Cabrera’s surprisingly low 13.4 career fWAR.

However, the Pittsburgh Pirates are certainly at a crossroads with their outfield. The team still seems to be committed to Austin Meadows, and have picked up an intriguing outfield prospect in Bryan Reynolds. Though Meadows may be held back to prove he can put together a full season in Triple-A, both have an excellent shot to be heard from in 2018. In that light, the Pirates might gravitate towards a player like Cabrera, one whose price tag is attractive enough to give the club some much needed flexibility — more on that below.

Career-to-Date

Table courtesy of Baseball Reference

The case for Cabrera

  • Despite wonky wRC+ and fWAR totals at times, Cabrera is still a productive player at the plate. His 17 home runs would have placed him fourth on the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates, while his 30 doubles would have co-led the club alongside McCutchen.
  • Though we mentioned that he has not put back to back 100 wRC+ plus seasons together in some time, Cabrera was just a dip below average last year at 98, likely a function of a two percent drop in walk rate. Plus, a case of pick your poison may be at play here, as Cabrera has put up an OPS+ of 100 or better in three of his last four seasons.
  • Though he has hit anywhere from 1st through 4th in the lineup over his career, Cabrera seems to thrive in the two-spot in the order, with a career .748 OPS. This could fit in nicely for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who will presumably bat Josh Bell third. Cabrera is a switch-hitter, and his left/right splits are actually pretty close, with a .785 OPS from the right side in 2017 to go along with a .735 mark from the left side.
  • Finally, as this market drags on — Spring Training is just 17 days away as of this writing — Cabrera’s price tag will drop, and the Pirates may in fact get lucky much as they did in 2016 with David Freese. Being that Cabrera is not in Pittsbugh’s long term plans, he can easily be flipped at midseason to a contender looking for a little extra oomph.

The case against Cabrera

  • Maybe Aaliyah was wrong, and age is more than a number. It certainly may be for Cabrera, who will turn 34 during the upcoming season. Cabrera’s age is likely felt in the field, where he was a -10 in defensive runs saved last season. He has also posted a negative UZR rating for six consecutive seasons and seven of his past eight campaigns. That may not play too well in PNC Park’s expansive left field..though that may be less of a concern if the club is willing to try Polanco in left again.
  • At the end of the day, are there better options out there? Possibly, but it is likely that no mid-tier outfielder can provide as much run creation as Cabrera could provide.
  • This must be mentioned. Cabrera’s flagship 2012 season also saw a 50 game suspension levied upon him for PED use.

What it might take

The Pittsburgh Pirates went bargain shopping a few weeks into Spring Training in 2016 and found Freese at $3 million. A similar deal should be able to bring Cabrera in the fold, though he may ask for a bit more due to a more solid track record. I spoke with an industry source today who feels that Cabrera should be able to easily command a $5 million per year salary, though many teams will shy at anything more than a one-year deal, with a potential 2018 team option.

Pittsburgh can easily afford such a contract, though anything beyond 2018 would likeyl be off the table, if only based on how the club’s outfield pipeline is shaping up.

Conclusion

The Pittsburgh Pirates could certainly do much worse than “The Melk Man,” however committing even a year to him will likely come down to factors surrounding other players.

There is the question of having a spot for either Meadows or Reynolds in mid-season, but the club must also consider Frazier, Rodriguez and even Max Moroff in weighing Cabrera. Though left-field is not his best position, filling that gap with Cabrera would leave one less avenue for the club to get Frazier regular at bats. That would have a domino effect on Moroff, who many would like to see have a shot at 250 PAs in a part-time infield role. Rodriguez hovers above all of these positions, as the team would like to avoid the idea of struggling to find at-bats for a $5.5 million dollar player. The team may also want to see what they truly have in Jose Osuna and Jordan Luplow, and the removal of an outfield spot for them to play would not serve that purpose.

Should the Pittsburgh Pirates bring in Melky Cabrera, their everyday lineup would get a little more dangerous, but would come with some hidden cost in terms of development time. And that may be a price the club is simply not willing to pay.

Photo credit – Keith Allison – Flickr Creative Commons 

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include rumbunter.com, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)