Let’s appreciate Melky Cabrera

BP South Side seems to have somehow developed some reputation for negativity. A shame! And baffling, given the sunny subject matter. To try to build back our reputation, let’s focus on a good story (all my stories are good, making this easy) about something going right this season.

A White Sox problem that has been referred to several times here, is the standout performance of core players being canceled out by the multiple positions just left to be filled by sub-major league talent. A refreshing exception to all that furor has been Melky Cabrera, who has just kind of done his job this season.

Like any free agent signing, Cabrera was brought mostly on the hope that he could produce in his first season. After age 30, bringing in any free agent is about filling in an immediate need with an educated guess about what that player can still be, and every year the certainty of that guess gets worse. With that in mind, Melky hitting .238/.272/.276 in his first 65 games in Chicago tanked much of the optimism for his tenure.

Cabrera had a nuclear month of July last season along with much of the team, but as the Adam Dunn contract showed, even if the sudden and inexplicable nosedive of a veteran player is not permanent, it’s usually the first step into the fits and starts of real decline. Instead, Cabrera has just turned around and given this year what the Sox needed originally: a solidly-above average bat to stick in an outfield corner and not worry about, as there are so, so many other things they need to worry about.

Despite an awful August, Cabrera’s .296/.348/.444 batting line gives him a 110 wRC+, a 117 OPS+ and a .275 TAv, all of which say this is a solid hitter to put in the top half of their order. Ironically, when I was shamelessly stumping for a Cabrera signing in the Winter of 2014, I admitted that Cabrera’s availability was probably coming a year too early: the Sox had a chasm in their outfield that had no solutions waiting in their minor league depth, but they were probably not quite ready to compete with him in 2015, when he would likely produce the most value. That wound up being true, albeit not for any intended reasons.

While Cabrera wasn’t meant as a savior, he’s increased the baseline total of plus hitters–last year they had two, now they have three, or four depending on which metrics is measuring Todd Frazier‘s contribution–on a Sox lineup too starved for credible hitters to care about any of his flaws. Cabrera’s level swing keeps him from posting ideal power production from an outfield corner, but on this team, he’s only a single point behind Justin Morneau for the third-highest slugging percentage on the roster, and only the slap-hitting J.B. Shuck makes more contact.

But the biggest negative element of Cabrera that the Sox are in the position to ignore is his defense, which is also what keeps him from being rated as a reliable starter, two-win type of player.

When a player’s defense is as universally regarded as below average as Cabrera’s is, we should be able to pick it out just fine with our eyes, but he replaced Dayan Viciedo, and has frequently shared the field with Avisail Garcia. Having a poor defensive partner actually makes Cabrera’s limited range less tolerable, and Cabrera, Garcia and Adam Eaton outfield defense of 2015 was under-the-radar terrible, but Cabrera’s ability to actually track and run down routine and some difficult fly balls has understandably avoided criticism from this audience.

While only Baseball Reference will be friendly enough to Cabrera’s defense to give him the blessed two-win player status that indicates a reliable starter, he gets the time-tested “makes all the routine plays” designation that makes him tolerable to a team that desperately needs his bat. On a roster of problems, Cabrera has not been one, and has taken one less issue off the board for 2017. In most free agent classes, that’s the best you can hope for.



Lead Image Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski // USA Today Sports Images

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