When I first saw the news of the deal where the Royals sent outfielder Melky Cabrera to the Giants for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and minor leaguer Ryan Verdugo, my first thought was that it was a great deal for the Royals – they traded a mediocre outfielder coming off his best season for a high-upside power lefty coming off of a down year, a move that upgrades their rotation and opens up the center field spot in 2011 for Lorenzo Cain. It seemed like a classic case of buying low and selling high executed by Dayton Moore, and the opposite by Brian Sabean. I had this rated as a big ripoff by the Royals.
At second glance, though, I started to wonder. There were a lot of unanswered questions. Was Jonathan Sanchez really any sort of good bet to turn his career around? Is Melky Cabrera actually better than I’ve given him credit for? Is Lorenzo Cain good enough to play center in the majors? Did Dayton Moore actually trade an ex-Brave for a non-ex-Brave without the world collapsing into itself?
This is a pretty classic trade of two teams dealing from strengths to fill weaknesses. The Giants had the second best ERA by their starting pitchers in the National League, behind only the Phillies. They had four qualified starters, and of the four, the highest was Madison Bumgarner’s 3.21 ERA. It’s probably not fair to expect Ryan Vogelsong to duplicate his 2011 season, but Bumgarner along with Lincecum and Cain are probably the best 1-2-3 in baseball outside of Philadelphia. A “high-upside” fifth starter who they’ve been trying for years to develop was probably one of the luxuries Brian Sabean felt they couldn’t afford. That’s particularly true of the Giants, who had a .228/.299/.347 line from the CF position in 2011, the lowest OBP and OPS in the NL. Meanwhile, the Royals had the second worst starting pitcher ERA in the American League, and do have depth in the outfield.
Trading from strength for weakness alone doesn’t make a good trade though. The Phillies won’t be trading Cole Hamels for Lyle Overbay just because they have good starting pitching and need a first baseman for 2012. The trade also needs to be at least somewhat even, right?
First, Jonathan Sanchez. There will always be a demand for lefty power pitchers. That’s especially true when it’s a lefty with a K/9 of 9.4 in over 700 career innings, and a no-hitter on his resume. There’s no doubt that Sanchez has talent. In 2010, what appeared to be a breakout season, he allowed only 142 hits while striking out 205 in 193.1 innings. He also led the National League with 96 walks, but you take the good with the bad, right? That still left him with a K/BB over the magic 2.0 threshold. In 2011, though, he took a big step backward. The K/9 dropped from 9.5 to 9.1, the BB/9 leapt from a barely sustainable 4.5 to a totally untenable 5.9, causing his ERA to go from 3.07 to 4.26. Sanchez also missed significant time with a biceps injury, going on the DL from June 26 until August 1, then again from August 17 to the end of the year. It’s fair to assume that the biceps injury was negatively affecting the pitching, but still, this was a great disappointment coming off of a 2010 that seemed to be his big breakthrough. At the end of the year, Sanchez is left with an ERA+ of only 97 for his career with a K/BB ratio under 2.0.
Then, there’s Melky Cabera. I posted here earlier this year comparing Cabrera’s offense to the much more highly touted B.J. Upton. However, the point of that post wasn’t to praise Cabrera as much as it was to bury Upton. Cabrera did have a legitimately good season at the plate in 2011, by far the best of his career. That makes some sense though, as it was his age 26 season. A lot of the years when Cabrera kind of stunk for the Yankees, it’s important to keep in mind he was doing it at an age where most guys are in college. In 2011, Cabrera had a .305/.339/.470 slash line. The power was new – that slugging percentage of .470 blew away his previous career high of .416, and he set career highs not only in raw doubles and home runs, but also in the rate that he hit them. So, was this a breakout or a fluke? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are a couple of discouraging signs. Since it’s likely that the power increase was at least somewhat for real, it’s also likely that he was just hitting the ball harder in general. However, he’d never been close to that .335 BABIP before – for his career, he was at .293 going into 2011. On top of that, his walk rate was much lower than it had been previously. Once every 20 PA, down from one every 12. Considering the increase in his power stats, one might assume that he was just making more contact early in his at-bats, but his strike out rate was actually worse than his career rate. Bring his BABIP down from .335 to a more likely .315, and his slash line drops to .289/.322/.453.
Keep in mind. .289/.322/.453 is still a pretty solid center fielder, especially since for the Giants. Again, that position managed only a .228/.299/.347 line in 2011. Is Melky Cabrera really a center fielder though? According to Baseball-Reference.com, his dWAR in 2011 was -1.9. FanGraphs shows him with a -8.6 UZR, fifth worst in baseball. This is a major problem. When I compared Cabrera positively with B.J. Upton earlier in the year, that was an offense-only comparison. Upton is one of the better defensive centerfielders around, which is why he has so much more value than Cabrera. If we’re predicting him to have an OPS somewhere in the .775 range, that’s tough to take in a corner for most teams. It's possible Cabrera really is a tweener, without the glove to carry him in center or the bat to carry him at a corner. Though, in what is likely a fluke but deserves some attention, left fielders around baseball simply stunk in 2011 – only three teams got a .775 OPS out of the left field position. So, with that info, it's fair to say Cabrera is due more credit than he gets. Regarding the San Francisco Giants, the possible alternatives just don't seem to be all that strong. Melky Cabrera may not be an optimal choice in LF/CF, but he is an significant upgrade in San Fran.
If you clicked on that link of left field production, you notice that the Kansas City Royals were one of those three teams, getting an excellent year out of Alex Gordon, who finally blossomed this year. The Royals are committed to their youth movement with Lorenzo Cain (though it’s fair to note that Cain is only 20 months younger than Cabrera). Going into the offseason, many thought it would be Cain on the trading block, coming off a very strong minor league season. Reports linked him to the Braves in a potential Jair Jurrjens deal at the trading deadline. Dayton Moore is sticking with the rebuilding plan, though, and Cain’s .305/.377/.476 line in 671 Triple-A plate appearances shows that he’s earned his chance.
In the interest of providing a complete analysis, know that Ryan Verdugo's future is in the bullpen. After some successful years in the low minors as a reliever, the Giants worked at converting him to starting in Double-A. The rise in home run rate and drop in strike out rate means a move back to the pen is forthcoming. With 167 strikeouts in 113 innings from 2008 to 2010 in the bullpen, it's not fair to write Verdugo off as a non-prospect, but he will turn 25 very early in the 2012 season and has not yet had success above Single-A.
For the Royals, I think this was a no-brainer. They got what may end up being the best season of Melky Cabrera’s career in exchange for nothing, then spun him for a potentially good starting pitcher while giving his long-term replacement some useful seasoning in Triple-A. Dayton Moore did a great job here, and I think this move makes the Royals closer to being a contender.
However, the fact that it was definitely a good move for the Royals doesn’t mean it’s a bad one for the Giants. Sanchez is at best a fourth starter in their organization, and their outfield is dreadful, particularly with the news that Pat Burrell’s career is probably over. Melky Cabrera is an upgrade for them even if he regresses to where I think he will. The only way I could criticize the Giants is if I thought they could’ve gotten more for Sanchez. Perhaps it was a mistake to trade him coming off of a down year, and they could have brought him to camp and shown the world he was healthy, but the Giants are looking to contend in 2012. They need to have a roster of guys who can help them win in place on opening day, and not worry about showcasing pitching for other teams. The Giants are better after this trade than they were before it, which means Brian Sabean did his job.
Maybe it’s boring or too noncommittal to analyze a trade and say it was a sensible move for both teams, but that’s where I stand on this one.