Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus wrote an article today about potential breakout players for the 2008 season. Yankees centerfielder Melky Cabrera made the list. Many have been quick to disagree with Sheehan, but not me. I think that Melky will improve in '08, and be a very solid player for the next 10+ years for the Yankees, or Twins, or whichever team is he on in the years to come.
Let’s take a look at what Sheehan had to say:
Melky Cabrera. Cabrera went backwards in ’07, but not by enough for concern. Remember that he is just 23 years old and has more than 1100 plate appearances in the majors, with average to average-plus defense (good physical tools, but very raw, takes bad routes) and a very good 129/96 K/BB. He is a mature player offensively, patient at the plate and fair on the bases (25-for-35 stealing in his career). One interesting quirk is his G/F ratio, which is 1.63 for his career and was a whopping 1.81 last season. Cabrera is listed at 5’11” and 200 pounds. He’s not Willy Taveras, but rather a player who should be developing power and learning how to drive the ball, rather than hitting the ball on the ground 60 percent of the time.
I’m reminded of Alex Rios, who doesn’t look a thing like Cabrera. Rios was largely disappointing in 2004 and 2005, hitting just 11 homers in more than 900 at-bats, with an isolated power of 117. The problem: Rios was hitting the ball on the ground too much, a 1.82 G/F in those two seasons. Starting in ’06, Rios put the ball in the air more than half the time, and became a star. When you look at Cabrera’s body, his established control of the strike zone, and his ability to hold his own at a young age, you recognize that all it’s going to take is for him to start elevating the ball. Cabrera may not get there in 2008, but he’s going to pop 80 extra-base hits and slug .500 in a season very, very soon.
The comparison with Rios has been be questioned and ridiculed by many people, but if we look deeper into this, we will see that it's not so crazy after all. Both players had very similar Minor League careers, with Melky having slightly better numbers:
(For fun let’s throw in Bernie Williams’ Minor League numbers as well)
Rios (7 seasons) - .293 BA .333 OBP .401 SLG .734 OPS
Cabrera (4 seasons) - .294 BA .344 OBP .422 SLG .766 OPS
Williams (7 seasons) - .285 BA .394 OBP .428 SLG .822 OPS
Now let's take a look at their first two seasons in the Major Leagues:
Rios - .286 BA .338 OBP .383 SLG .721 OPS 84/31 K/BB
.262 BA .306 OBP .397 SLG .703 OPS 101/28 K/BB
Cabrera - .280 BA .360 OBP .391 SLG .751 OPS 59/56 K/BB
.273 BA .327 OBP .391 SLG .718 OPS 68/43 K/BB
Williams - .238 BA .336 OBP .350 SLG .686 OPS 57/48 K/BB
.280 BA .354 OBP .406 SLG .760 OPS 36/29 K/BB
Again, very similar numbers all around, with the exception of Bernie's first year, and Rois' K/BB.
I really don't think people should brush-off this idea so quickly, especially when you consider that offensively, Melky has had a better start to his career than Rios did, and was better in the Minors. The one advantage Rios had at this point is their careers is defensive. However, in time, Melky could become a very good defensive player if he took better routes to balls, and made better decisions once he has the ball.
Does any of this mean that Melky will actually be the next Bernie Williams, or Alex Rios? No, not at all, but what it does mean is that it’s probably a little premature to write-off Melky as "nothing but a 4th outfielder” at this stage in his career. Especially when he has been as solid as he has to been to so far.