Thursday, January 18, 2007

How Good Will Melky Be?

Melky Cabrera is most likely going to be our 4th outfielder next season. Melky entered 2006 in a suspect position. Entering 2006, Melky was just a 21 year old borderline centerfielder who had been promoted quickly throughout the system. Melky had a knack to avoid the strikeout, a cannon for an arm, and above average range for a corner outfielder, but there wasn't much reason to believe that he was anything special. I wasn't a big Melky fan a year ago.

Things can certainly change in a year. Melky spent a month in Columbus, hitting .385/.430/.556 in 31 games. I was ranting and raving about how Melky needed to be called up, but the Yankees only did so when an injury to Gary Sheffield forced their hand. Melky went on to hit .280/.360/.391 in the majors.

So, how good will Melky be? Melky Cabrera's rise is impressive for a few reasons. First off, he was very young. You can count the number of regular 21 year-old hitters in the majors on one hand. However, Melky's success is more important because he showed oustanding strike zone discipline at his young age. Melky struck out 59 times and walked 55 times.

How about his defense? That is a much harder question to answer. SG at RLYW did an excellent week-by-week analysis of Melky's defense performance. He came up with a slightly below average -3 runs over the 130 games. Win Shares at THT would rate Melky at about 3.51 WS over a full season, or 3rd among corner outfielders in the majors. Bill James also thinks that Melky is a top-5 corner outfielder in baseball. Of course, other pundits and fans have observed Melky and rated him as a "Great" defensive left fielder.

My opinion? I think that Melky is better than SG's Zone Rating analysis would pin him at. I don't think that he is an elite left fielder either. His arm is superb, but Melky had a lot of trouble with balls over his head. I'd call Melky above average, at maybe +5 runs over the full season. He should improve in 2007.

If Melky just repeated his 2006 performance, he would be a nice little bench player. He could switch hit, play defense, and pinch run without embarassing us. Taking a quick little look at all the contending teams in 2006, only Boston (Wily Mo Pena / Coco Crisp), Detroit (Thames / Monroe), Oakland (Bobby Kietly) and Los Angeles (Andre Ethier) got that kind of production out of their 4th outfielder. He would provide us a small competitive advantage.

But the nice thing about young players is that they are more likely to improve than decline. Melky's success as a 21 year old is very rare in the baseball world. The following predictions have been made by the various projection systems for Melky Cabrera in 2007:

: .274/.371/.425
ZiPs: .295/.355/.445
Marcel: .289/.362/.421
Average: .286/.362/.430

In addition, PECOTA has predicted a similar line, but I can't publish information available only to premium Baseball Prospectus subscribers.

These predictions seem very fair for Melky. I've heard that 21 year olds increase their offensive output by 15% the next season. After seeing these projections, and taking a look at PECOTA's comprable players Reggie Smith and Carlos Beltran at the same age, I'm starting to warm up to the idea that Melky might just become a good enough hitter to play in a corner outfield spot. He doesn't have the range to hold down centerfield, so this is going to be vital if Melky will ever be more than a 4th outfielder.

Bobby Abreu's contract is up after next season, even though we have an option for 2008. Melky's 2007 performance will determine whether or not we can comfortably decline that option. For now, if he improves he'll be a major competitive advantage on our bench.

My prediction? I'll bet on that average line right there.