I am a daily listener to ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast. Along with the B.S. Report, Freakonomics Radio, and good ol’ Kanye West, it’s my regular soundtrack at the rec center while I rehab my knee. Too much information about me, you’re not here for that – anyhow, the point is, that a standard segment of the FFB podcast involves Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft playing what’s fondly known as America’s Favorite Game – ‘Bona fide, or Bonifacio’ (Olé!). Though it’s been a tad confused this season by a change in show hosts, the premise is basically thus; Player X gets off to an unexpectedly hot start. If Eric and Tristan believe his performance is legitimate, i.e. something has clicked, he’s going to enjoy a breakout, this is not just a fluke – Player X is bona fide. If they believe his play will regress on the other hand, or just generally don’t believe for some other reason (injury, opportunity etc.) – Player X is Bonifacio*.
Which (finally) brings me to Melky Cabrera.
Heading into 2014, there was little certainty surrounding Cabrera. After being a .280/.360/.391 hitter, and 2.7 WAR player in his first full season as a Yankee in 2006, he mixed underwhelming performance with injury for the next four years (3 of which he spent in New York, the other as an Atlanta Brave), accumulating just 1.8 WAR along the way. Suddenly though, in 2011 the Melk-man was good again; with the Kansas City Royals that year, the Dominican Republic native appeared in 155 games and hit .305/.339/.470, good for a 4.1 WAR value. Things would start even better the next year, this time in San Francisco. Cabrera would rake .346/.390/.516, win the All-Star MVP trophy, and garner 4.6 WAR before his season was abruptly ended after just 113 games. The reason for his shortened campaign – a 50-game PED suspension (and hilariously awful attempt to mask it with a fake website).
Left off of the Giants’ 2012 World Series team, Melky was controversially awarded a two-year, $16 million contract by a Toronto Blue Jays organization desperately hoping to rebound from a woeful 73-89 season (he signed just a week after the Jays pulled off the blockbuster trade with Miami that netted them Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and the then-valuable Josh Johnson). A putrid season followed, during which Cabrera played just 88 games, hit .279/.322/.360, and was a disaster defensively. His struggles were further amplified by a raging narrative – off the juice, Melky was nothing but an average ballplayer.
Subsequently, little was expected of 29-year-old both in terms of on-field and fantasy value this year; even with a spot in the Jays outfield alongside Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista pretty much guaranteed, as put by Chris Cwik of Fangraphs way back in February, “Unless Cabrera gets back to hitting for ridiculous averages, or rediscovers his power, he’s nothing more than a late-round flyer at a deep position.” Well, as it turns out, the leftie so far has hit for ridiculous average, .338 in fact. He has rediscovered his power, having hit 6 home runs already. That “late-round flyer at a deep position” is currently the 22nd ranked player in all of fantasy baseball per ESPN’s Player Rater. His 7.98 rating makes him the 8th best outfielder, and is tied with Mike Trout. By all measures, he’s been excellent for the Jays thus far, and a big part of the team’s early offensive success.**
Given his history however – the fluctuating performance, the drug suspension, the injuries – in combination with the small sample size, it seems more than fair to ask the question – is Melky Cabrera bona fide, or Bonifacio?
I’m inclined to lean bona fide, and mainly because of one factor: his health. Lost in the gruesome horror show that was the Blue Jays’ injury-marred 2014, Cabrera had perhaps the most serious ailment of all. As first written by Mike Petriello, “In Cabrera’s case, he didn’t injure a shoulder or a knee or a foot. He had a tumor in his back, and as unbelievable as it seems to say, somehow that seemed to fly completely under the radar.” Doctors legitimately wondered how he had been able to play at all, let alone appear in 88 games, and the subsequent coverage of his recovery illustrated just how affected Cabrera was. Robbed of all power in his lower half, Cabrera was not only a stiff in the field, but at the dish. Just look how painfully inflexible Cabrera looks batting here:
Ouch. Now compare that to a cut from earlier this season:
That’s Masahiro Tanaka pitching there, and that’s also a home run.
The difference in Cabrera’s approach when healthy is remarkable then. Able to turn on and drive the ball once again, it looks like he’s back in his 2011/2 form – and at just 29, is feasibly at his peak. Now, the power will almost certainly regress – his current HR/FB rate of 17.6 % is far above his career average of 7.3% – but thanks to his quick start, he’ll likely end up with around 16 (his previous career high is 18). His ability to hit for average however, isn’t going anywhere. Though he has a BABIP of .372, Cabrera is roping line drives 24.4 % of the time he puts the ball in play, and popping up just 5.9% of the time – good signs that he’ll be able to maintain such a high BABIP. Additionally, he’s done it before, back in 2012, when he had a .379 mark. Even with such an abbreviated season, that year Melky finished 15th among all outfielders on the Player Rater.
All of which is to say, that yes, you should believe. With an average draft position of 220.5, Cabrera looks set to become one of the biggest steals of the 2014 fantasy season, and will also present a conundrum for the Jays this offseason. In the last year of that original two-year pact, Cabrera’s current output is steadily increasing his winter price tag. He’ll be 30 then, and as detailed, not without baggage. His 2014 though, will have been bona fide.
* eponymously named after Emilio Bonifacio years ago after previous hosts Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz first debated the legitimacy of his April showing.
** Though the Jays stand fourth in the AL East at 16-17, they are only 1.5 games back for the division lead, and are the only team with a positive run differential (+4).