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Pursuing the Suspended Melkman

Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games on Wednesday after testing positive for testosterone, a performance-enhancing substance. Cabrera was in the midst of a career-season with the Giants, tallying 4.5 WAR while hitting .346/.390/.516. With just 45 games left on the Giants schedule, Cabrera is done for the regular season and the Division Series. Without his potent bat in the lineup, the Giants playoff odds are reduced, and it’s tough to consider them NL West favorites anymore.

But the suspension has significant ramifications for Cabrera’s future, as the 28-year old outfielder was set to hit free agency after the season. After posting 4.2 WAR last season and following that up with an even better campaign this year, he was in line for quite the hefty payday. Hard-hitting centerfielders with good speed, who aren’t defensive detriments, get paid, especially when they are still in the midst of their primes. Cabrera was probably looking at a four- or five-year deal in the $65-$80 million range.

Now, his free agency case becomes very, very interesting. He isn’t going to get that big contract, and might realistically have to settle for a one-year deal in which he sustains a high level of performance without failing any drug tests.

It seems likely that Cabrera’s numbers were boosted by a banned substance, but if he legitimately improved aside from that hypothetical boost, and he is viewed as a risky free agent because of the uncertainty surrounding the validity of his production, he becomes imminently more signable to teams looking to bolster outfield productivity without breaking the bank. The Phillies are one of those teams, and this suspension makes it much easier to sign Cabrera to a team-friendly deal.

Obviously, we have to deal with the elephant in the room: if Cabrera’s 2011-12 performance surge is solely the result of taking performance-enhancing drugs, then he really isn’t worth signing. Prior to last season, Cabrera was a glorified fourth outfielder thrust into starting roles based on unrealized potential. He wasn’t a bad major league player, but his bat didn’t exactly amplify his mediocre or worse fielding and he was more Nate Schierholtz than Shane Victorino.

The Melkman Suspendeth

When discussing transactions, however, we have to be open to the possibility that Cabrera legitimately improved, and that the failed test was more coincidence than cause. It’s perfectly understandable that some will steadfastly chalk up his improvement as the result of PEDs and nothing else, but in determining whether the Phils should pursue him this offseason, that risk balance becomes paramount.

It really boils down to a simple question: is Cabrera worth a one-year, $10 million contract next season?

If the Phillies were to sign him to that type of “pillow” contract, and he plays to his 2006-10 level, he’ll make more than his production is worth, but it won’t be a bad signing by any stretch. After all, it’s tough to call any one-year deal bad, when it’s such a short commitment. If his improvements were real and he has another 3.5+ WAR season, then the Phils would have gotten an all-star player at a relative bargain rate. There is risk all around, but for a team with financial constraints, taking a short-term risk with Cabrera might be better than spending $80-$90 million on Michael Bourn.

But would Cabrera sign for just one season? He might not have a choice. While some teams might pursue him regardless of the suspension, there isn’t any precedent for suspended players signing lucrative, multi-year deals after their suspension occurred. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs perused the list of suspended players and found that none of them signed for any more than two years subsequent to the suspension. Most of the players spent the remainder of their careers going year-to-year.

Then again, few, if any of these players were 28 years old and about to hit free agency. The vast majority were already under contract or approaching the end of their careers. Reiterating a previous point, there is virtually no precedent for Cabrera’s impending free agency. But this much is clear: he isn’t going to sign a four- or five-year contract, and he cost himself close to $60-$70 million by failing this drug test. What isn’t clear is how he will perform moving forward, since nobody can be sure whether or not his 4+ WAR campaigns these last two seasons are the direct result of testosterone usage.

Michael Bourn is risky because he doesn’t get on base all that often, strikes out quite a bit, his main skill isn’t one that projects to age all that well into his mid-to-late thirties, and because he will make $80-$90 million in spite of all that. He does, however, bring with him a certain established level of performance that, to date, hasn’t been tainted by a failed drug test.

Cabrera represents a different form of risk in that we literally have no idea what to expect moving forward. But that risk is accompanied by the supreme likelihood that he signs for a much more team-friendly contract. I’m not 100 percent advocating the pursuit of Cabrera, but it’s a very interesting situation that can hurt one’s head when considering all of the variables.

The Phillies probably need to move away from doling out lucrative, long-term deals, and Cabrera has the potential to produce as much value as a Bourn or Hamilton, but at a fraction of the price and commitment. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the PEDs caused the two-year performance spike, making his 2011-12 numbers irrelevant when discussing his 2013 production.

The Phillies were bound to pursue Cabrera after the season as Amaro has made it clear that he values outfield production. While the kneejerk reaction here is to move on from the Melkman and shift focus to other valuable free agents, the Phils need to really think long and hard about this one, weighing the risks on all fronts before making a decision.

A potentially valuable outfielder just became imminently more signable. If the Phils can improve the outfield through unconventional means like properly utilizing a Schierholtz and Mayberry platoon, making a trade for Shin-Soo Choo, bolstering depth by making out well with the likes of Pierre and Nix, or getting major production out of Domonic Brown, they could weather the risk that Cabrera turns into a pumpkin because, if he remains as productive, they improved in an important area in a far less costly manner. It’s easy to see why Cabrera isn’t as attractive of a player anymore, but this isn’t a black-and-white, cut-and-dried situation by any stretch and presents the team with a fascinating offseason dilemma.

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