Prospect Retrospective: Melky Cabrera, OF, San Francisco Giants
National League All-Star outfielder Melky Cabrera has been suspended for 50 games after testing positive for PED use. He was hitting .346/.390.516 with a 158 OPS+. This follows on the heels of a .305/.339/.470, 121 OPS+ season for the Kansas City Royals, who felt they were selling high on Cabrera by trading him to the San Francisco Giants. Cabrera has greatly exceeded expectations the last two seasons, and now we know why. Certainly, his record as a prospect didn't imply that he was capable of this kind of performance.
Melky Cabrera was signed by the New York Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2001. He earned a $175,000 bonus, not a gigantic sum but hardly chump change either. At the time, he was considered an excellent defensive outfielder who might develop into a decent hitter. He made his North American debut in 2003 with Staten Island, hitting .283/.345/.355 in 279 at-bats, with 13 steals and a 23/36 BB/K in 279 at-bats.
Cabrera began 2004 with Battle Creek in the Low-A Midwest League, hitting .333/.383/.462 in 42 games. Promoted to High-A Tampa, he remained effective with a .288/.341/.438 mark in 85 games. I gave him a Grade B- in my 2005 book, writing that at age 20 he still had lots of time to develop and that I was optimistic about him.
Cabrera spent most of 2005 with Double-A Trenton, hitting .275/.322/.411 with 10 homers, 11 steals, 28 walks, and 72 strikeouts in 426 at-bats. He jumped to the majors in June to cover for an injured Bernie Williams, but it was obvious that he was rushed and he was sent back down after six games. He played a month for Triple-A Columbus (.248/.309/.366), then was sent back to Double-A.
Cabrera was mentioned in trade talks and the Yankees played him up as a hot prospect. However, I got a negative review from a reliable scouting source, who had seen Cabrera multiple times, was unimpressed with his bat, and also felt that Cabrera's speed and athleticism were already on the decline despite his youth. His Double-A production was nothing great, and he didn't hit much in Triple-A, so I lowered his rating to a Grade C, due to the combination of blah statistics and the less-than-enthusiastic scouting report. I believe at one point I flippantly wrote "Melky Cabrera sucks," which obviously turned to be incorrect.
In retrospect, even considering the PED use, I was too negative about him, and should have paid more attention to his age. While some downgrade from the B- was logical, I should have gone with a C+, not a C, and avoided the snark. Cabrera spent most of 2006 with the Yankees, hitting .280/.360/.391. He was a below average hitter for the four years with the Yankees and Atlanta Braves, but kept himself employed due to his defensive reputation until an age 26 offensive breakout in 2011.
WAR has been pretty negative about Melky as a defensive player the last few years, but his bat has improved enough to compensate for this. Of course, now we have to wonder how much of this was due to PEDs and how much was real improvement.
Cabrera's track record as a minor leaguer was never that of a future star. His best attribute was age-relative-to-league. His stats were decent, but not terrific. Scouting reports were mixed: many baseball sources really liked him, and just as many felt he was nothing special and destined to be a fourth outfielder.
The original version of this article was written in mid-July, but I have revised it now that we know more about why Cabrera improved.