Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kansas City’s Cabrera Conundrum

The rumors are abuzz as we approach the MLB trade deadline. Many sources have said that the Kansas City Royals are very interested in trading one (or both) of Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera.

The decision with Francoeur seems more straightforward for the Royals on its face. He is only under team control until the end of this current season. His peripheral stats are largely the same as they have always been, the one difference for him this season has been increased power output. Francoeur is going for extra bases at a rate similar to that of his second season in Atlanta when everybody thought he might be a breakout player for the Braves. Francoeur has demonstrated this type of power before, and has fallen off this level of power production before. Unfortunately, because Francoeur does not hit for a high average or take many walks, his value is pretty much entirely tied to his power output, which largely cannot be trusted at its current level. Especially when you consider that his production since the first month of the season has fallen off dramatically. As such the decision for KC is easy, with no team control and a player who is not all that valuable going forward, trade him for whatever you can get and move on.

With Melky Cabrera things are slightly more complicated. First, Melky is under team control for another year. Second, Melky has been a more valuable player than Francoeur this season (.350 wOBA to .337 wOBA, 3.3 WAR to 1.9 WAR). Third Melky can play CF, albeit not all that well, as well as a corner OF position. Fourth, Melky’s production has been consistent over the course of this season. Fifth, KC really does not have a ton of help in the way of corner outfield production. Scanning their minor league system, it is hard to believe they could get the level of production Melky would provide in the corners next season from anybody they called up. Will Myers, who has had some injury troubles, has also struggled in AA this season and at this point, one would have to believe he has at least one more full season in the minors to go if not more before he arrives in KC. As such, Melky may provide KC with the best production in a corner OF position by a good margin if he could keep up this seasons pace, and he would be maintained at a fairly affordable price.

The question then becomes, first, can Melky possibly maintain his current level of production in to next season and second, is having Melky’s production for another season more valuable to KC than acquiring pieces for the future?

The first is more complicated than it may seem. Melky’s increased production this season is bolstered by a OBP that is slightly above his career norms but supported by the highest batting average of his career and increased power production mostly in the form of home runs that seems to have arisen strictly from an increase in HR/FB. Melky actually has struck out slightly more and walked less than he has during the course of his career. His LD, GB and FB rates are all basically the same as they always have been. His career BABIP for all three rates are .703, .245 and .129 respectively while this season he is sitting at .714, .286, and .163 respectively. The BABIP increases could feasibly happen after a player develops more power generally if his LD, FB and GB are hit harder on the whole, but these increases seem suspect, especially the GB rate. His projected BA at this career rates would be:

(128 – (.714 - .703)(63) – (.286 - .245)(175) – (.163 - .129)(121))/ 427 ~= .272

If we assume, probably rightfully, that Melky’s .300 BA is highly inflated and that .272 represents his probable mean expected BA, his OBP falls to approximately .307, very much unspectacular.

However, there is some reason to think Melky may be accumulating a more powerful HR stroke. He is only 26 at the moment, prime age for a power increase, and unlike Francoeur he did not show this kind of power years ago, only recently, in 2009 he had almost an identical HR/FB rate in his age 24 season. Last season he suffered his lowest HR/FB output however this season is almost identical to his 2009 rate. Before that his career HR/FB rate was roughly half of his 2009/2011 rates. His HR/FB rate over the last three seasons is roughly 6.7% and his production this year has been fairly consistent. While 2010 cannot be discounted entirely, there is reason to think that Melky can hit at a roughly 8-10% HR/FB clip going forward. His doubles power has remained mostly consistent. Assuming a 9% HR/FB rate, Melky’s slugging would basically remain the same minus the extra hits we deducted previously. As such, his expected triple slash would be approximately .272/.307/.429. As such, Melky almost definitely is not as valuable as his stats indicate this season. Looking at wOBA comparables for those lines it is apparent his wOBA would drop considerably, probably into the high .320’s though it is difficult to say exactly because it is an adjusted stat. That would put Melky slightly above average in CF and just about average in LF. Keeping in mind his defense is below average in CF and probably average to above average in LF, and what you have in Melky is a decidedly average player.

The next question is whether it is worth it for KC to keep Melky for next season, or get value in return for him?

The first issue is that Melky is outperforming his expected production by a somewhat considerable margin. So first and foremost, if any other team buys Melky as a potential producer at his current levels and is willing to compensate KC accordingly, KC should sell.

Next, Melky is under team control. While he will make more than his current salary next season, he almost definitely will not cost as much as would a free agent per win value. The free agent cost of a win is probably close to 5 million, and Melky will not cost anything near that for the Royals. However, do the Royals really care?

First, there are ample replacements available in the free agent market as possible stop gaps that would provide as much production if not more and probably not many years or dollars (albeit not as few dollars or years as Melky), such as Damon, Dejesus, Jones, Ludwick, Ross, Willingham ect. They have varying levels of value but all are relatively average to below average and probably will not command many dollars or years. KC could also use an internal option, probably somebody not named Myers, and trot out below average production at highly cost controlled rates. If we are looking at Melky’s direct replacement in CF in Lorenzo Cain, KC may get equivalent to better production in CF while losing in RF assuming both Francoeur and Melky are traded and no external replacement is found in the offseason.

Second, KC this season probably figures to finish with 66-72 wins, not nearly enough to compete for the division. While the clubs offense is somewhat decent, the starting pitching is still largely abysmal, tied for the worst era in the AL with Baltimore, and their peripheral stats largely support that result. If the question is really about competitiveness for next season, there is some hope only because Hosmer and Moustakas may make strides and some more of the young pitching might arrive and produce enough to allow KC to compete in a relatively weaker division. However, that’s asking for a lot, realistically, KC probably needs to get about 15-20 wins better to possibly win the division, a substantial gulf that is probably unattainable for next season without massive free agent signings.

As a result, because KC is probably not quite ready to compete for the division and because Melky Cabrera is probably overvalued by at least one front office somewhere at the moment, the right move is probably to move Melky along with Francoeur and worry about his replacement at a later date. As stated, for RF (assuming Cain takes over in center and Francoeur is gone), there will be ample choices for KC to replace Melky with if they think they are closer to the 15-20 win difference than not.

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