Widely predicted to challenge for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs prior to the 2013/4 NBA season tipping off, the Cavaliers instead endured a year from hell. The grand Andrew Bynum gamble was an irrevocable disaster, the bowling enthusiast turning practice into a spectacle worse than even his hair. Dion Waiters and the team’s star point guard Kyrie Irving allegedly fought. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett was an unmitigated flop. The coach they re-hired, and gave a five-year contract too in the process, was duly fired after one.
Naturally then, the Cavs landed the No.1 pick for the 2014 draft, and thus the right to presumably choose between Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.
There weren’t so many high hopes for the Cleveland Browns last season – the AFC North always looked to tough for them to truly challenge – but still, not much went according to plan. Jimmy Haslam, the team’s new owner, was (and still is) under federal investigation. Just as Brian Hoyer was starting to look good at the QB position, he tore up his knee. Coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after one year, as was Mike Lombardi – even after acquiring a first round pick for Trent Richardson.
Of course, they not only landed Justin Gilbert in the draft, but some kid called Johnny Football? With Manziel in tow, along with a ton of merchandise money, there’s now hope for the Browns.
The Cleveland Indians meanwhile, have so far been nothing but disappointing. After going to the Wild-Card game last year, they currently stand at 22-25, last in the AL Central. Danny Salazar is in the minors. Carlos Santana is batting .146. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the team’s big free agent additions a year ago, have alternately been battling injury and ineffectiveness. All-Star second baseman, Jason Kipnis is currently sidelined with a strained oblique. 2013 pitching ace Scott Kazmir is thriving, except he’s in Oakland now.
Now in his sixth season in the big leagues, the 27-year-old Brantley has been the lone bright star in what has otherwise been a gloomy quarter-season for the Indians. Case in point, the left fielder leads the team in darn near all offensive categories; batting average (.302), on base percentage (.370), slugging percentage (.523), home runs (9), RBI(zzzzzz) (36), hits (52), oWAR (1.6) – you name it, Brantley probably leads it. In fact, if it weren’t for Asdrubal Cabrera having one measly run scored more than him, Brantley’s name would head every offensive leaderboard for the team. With little help coming from elsewhere in the lineup, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the left-handed Brantley has almost single-handedly kept the Cleveland offense afloat amidst their early season struggles.
It hasn’t exactly been a fluke either. A career .277 hitter prior to the season, his 2014 success in hitting for average hasn’t been BABIP fueled; his current batted ball mark of .277 is actually 25 points below his career average. After being considerably limited by fellow southpaws in the past too (his average fell .30 against portsiders, whereas his slugging percentage dropped .80), Brantley has this year been an equal opportunities hitter, battering lefties (.288 average, .887 OPS) at a clip almost identical with his mark against right-handers (.292 and .872 respectively). Sure you can point to his 2013 Will Venable impersonation in regards to his HR/FB rate – which currently sits at a round 20.0% – and thus scream regression at his power totals, but having just turned 27 (and apparently, having carried his newborn baby around everywhere all winter too), is it totally unreasonable that Brantley is hitting for more power than ever? His approach at the plate certainly can’t be argued with – only marveled at; having struck out just 16 times in 192 plate appearances, ‘Dr. Smooth’ ranks fifth-lowest among AL qualifiers in K% with a mark of 8.3%. Thanks in part to his elite contact rate (91.2% for his career) and decent patience, he’s actually drawn ball four (17) more often than fallen victim to the K.
All signs then, point to Brantley continuing to enjoy his ‘breakout’. The Cleveland front office will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of him doing so – prior to the season, they locked him up to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $25 million which will see Brantley in an Indians uniform through his age-30 season (a club option for a fifth year for $11 million could extend that to through 2018).
God might still hate Cleveland, but there’s always room for optimism. He might not be a Wiggins-esque franchise savior, and is nowhere close to becoming a Manziel-level cash cow, but Michael Brantley is darn good.
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).
When the Athletics acquired Craig Gentry from the Rangers this past offseason, it was clear someone had to go; between Gentry, Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, and Seth Smith they had five outfielders for three spots (though at least had the luxury of the DH position available), all of whom were too good (/valuable as trade pieces) to simply languish on the bench. Cashing in one of their outfield chips for additional help elsewhere on the roster thus seemed inevitable for Oakland – it was just a matter of who would go. In the end it was Smith who was the man to escape not only the O.co Coliseum’s dreaded sewage system, but the A’s positional logjam, traded to San Diego in return for highly regarded reliever Luke Gregerson.
Once again though, despite his change in zip codes, Smith found himself surrounded by a bevy of capable outfielders, positional incumbents Cameron Maybin, Will Venable, Chris Denorfia, and Carlos Quentin all presumably vying for limited at bats (not to mention rookie Tommy Medica transitioning to the outfield after an impressive cup of coffee in 2013, or the presences of Kyle Blanks and Alexi Amarista). With no DH slot to fill in at either, it looked like the 31-year-old would be used sparsely as a situational pinch-hitter until the depth chart was thinned. Fortunately for Smith, albeit not so much for those mentioned, his path to playing time was made somewhat easier when both Maybin (ruptured biceps tendon) and Quentin (lingering knee issues) went down with injuries; with their absences, Bud Black would have little choice but to give Smith run as the strong side of a left field platoon with Medica.
So (#small) far (sample) so (size) good. Four at bats into his Padres career, the former backup quarterback of Eli Manning at Ole Miss already has two homers, including the game tying shot against the Dodgers’ Brian Wilson in Sunday’s Opening Night tilt – a hanging 2-and-0 cutter that he crushed to right field, endearing himself to his new home crowd.
Due to yesterday’s focus, the lefty Hjun-jin Ryu starting for L.A., Smith and his garish .203 average against fellow portsiders were relegated to pinch-hitting duties that night, but his 8th inning leadoff jack started the three run rally for San Diego that would ultimately propel them to victory. He was at it again just two nights later, getting the start in left against Zack Greinke, and breaking up the righty’s no-hit bid with a similar bomb in the fourth inning (it was a 2-and-1 change-up that he took 374 feet to right on Tuesday). This time though, his best efforts (2-3, 1BB) weren’t enough to lift the Friars over their NL West rivals.
Selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 2nd Round of the 2004 amateur draft, Smith has proven to be a useful player during his tenure in the majors; since making his debut in 2007, Smith has a lifetime line of .265/.342/.456, his best season coming in 2009, when he hit for .293 with 55 RBI and 14 homeruns with a .510 slugging percentage. His extreme splits though have sufficiently limited his ultimate usefulness as an everyday player – his OPS diving .262 points against fellow southpaws compared to his .849 mark versus righties. For comparisons sake however, since Smith came up in 2007, Andre Ethier owns a -.200 OPS differential between his total mark and that against lefties, while Shin-Soo Choo checks in with a -.174 figure; Smith though, will make $4.5 million this year before becoming eligible for free agency, while Ethier has (including this year and his vesting option) $86.5 million remaining on his deal, and the 31-year old Choo has just started a seven-year $130 million pact. I shall say no more.
In a carefully managed 400-500 PA role, Smith could prove very useful – and supremely valuable – indeed. As demonstrated over the past couple of days, he has the potential to pick on righties; Bud Black‘s optimal usage of his lefty weapon then should see him face no one but right-handed pitchers in a similar (albeit less-powerful) platoon role as former Oakland teammate – and previous DP topic – Brandon Moss. The Padres could sure do with his continued platoon production – last year San Diego ranked 25th in baseball with a .241 average against right-handed pitching, and were 29th in OPS (.668) against righties (H/T to Corey Brock of MLB.com).
Tipped by many to sneak a NL Wild-Card berth, Smith’s lefty pop could be pivotal in swinging a few games San Diego’s way in 2014, and thus helping them back to the postseason. Sure it may have taken a couple of unfortunate injuries for him to get his shot, but just ask the Dodgers what Seth Smith can do when given the appropriate chance.
Towers on Trumbo in LF: “There’s no doubt in our mind he’ll be a solid average defender.”
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) December 10, 2013
“First, (Trumbo) is a good athlete with a great arm… I really like his work ethic and he’ll be fine. The key is to make the routine play. After all, we want a good outfielder and a good outfield.” – Dave McKay, Arizona Diamondbacks First Base Coach.
“If you had to sum up Mark Trumbo in left field, it would have to be one word: Awkward.” – Vin Scully, Dodgers 3 vs. Diamondbacks 1, Top 8th, March 22, 2014.
With my one exam of Finals Week already over (pretty awesome right?!), I’ve little else to do but watch March Madness hoops in between performing the various knee rehabilitation exercises I’ve been assigned in the wake of my ACL injury (not so awesome). Of course, I’ve also plenty of time to fret about the fate of my Cincinnati Reds. As an irrational fan, I was already worried about their NL Central chances even before Aroldis Chapman took a Salvador Perez line drive to the face yesterday (thankfully, it sounds like the Cuban Missile will be okay); in addition to losing key contributors like Shin-Soo Choo, Ryan Hanigan, and Bronson Arroyo over the offseason without really replacing them (as exciting as Billy Hamilton is, I’m still on the fence regarding his value), their divisional competition seemed to be stronger than ever. Considering how the Cardinals have somehow got even deeper over the winter, Chicago having nowhere to go but up, and how the Pirates could soon add impact rookies Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco to their 94-win team of 2013, I was beginning to take solace in the mediocre Brewers at least providing Cincinnati some respite during the upcoming season. Then I realized they might just have the best outfield in the entire National League this year.
Carlos Gomez will be looking to continue where he left off in 2013, a breakout year in which the former Mets prospect was worth 7.6 WAR, hit .284/.338/.506 with 24 home runs and 40 stolen bases, and played historically good defense in center field. Ryan Braun too, returning from an injury-marred season which infamously ended with a 65-game PED suspension, still figures to be an elite offensive threat even if his numbers do slightly regress from their possibly unnatural 2008-12 peak. The player that will perhaps most contribute towards the Brewers improving on their disappointing 67-95 record from a year ago however, and either affirm or disprove my ranking of Milwaukee’s outfield as the Senior Circuit’s best, is neither Braun nor Gomez though; new left fielder Khris Davis will be the X-factor for the Brew Crew in 2014.
Selected by the Brewers in the seventh round of the 2009 amateur draft, Davis last year took the NL Central by storm with a .406 wOBA after being called up to the Majors in July. Taking over full-time left field duties when Braun was suspended, Khris mashed during the second-half, posting a .279 batting average, a .949 OPS, and by virtue of his smoking 11 home runs in only 153 plate appearances, a .316 ISO mark that ranked second in baseball amongst those with at least 100 plate appearances – behind only his near-namesake Chris Davis. Not a bad first cup of coffee for the 26-year-old, but was it legit?
Davis hit line drives 20.4% of the time with a .293 BABIP last year with the Brewers, indicating his average wasn’t especially fluky. His 22.2% strikeout rate, and 7.2% walk rate weren’t great, but were also far off his statistics in the Minors – leaving additional room for improvement in his .353 OBP number. And though Davis’ 2013 HR/FB rate (28.9%) was unsustainably high, the power of “Khrush” is real; he hit 22 home runs in the offensively-challenging Midwest League in his first full professional season with Single-A Wisconsin in 2010, 17 more at High-A and Double-A in 2011, and a further 15 in just 82 games between Double-A and Triple-A Nashville during 2012. Sure, he’s not the 35+ HR sort of player last year’s numbers indicated, but he could easily reach 20-25 given full playing time – something he’ll receive in 2014.
Evidently the Brewers believe in the Cal State Fullerton product; though they’ve been coy about naming him the outright starter, the trade of incumbent right fielder Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals (in exchange for lefty swingman Will Smith), and subsequent move of Braun to the open slot in right, appears to have opened up left field for Davis – and Davis alone; Logan Schafer and Caleb Gindl will most likely only be reserve options for the club.
So, as written by Bryan Curley on Baseball Professor, “Essentially, we have a player with average contact skills, above average (and possibly very good) plate discipline, and a good amount of power who just so happens to be playing in a hitter’s park (Miller Park has a 108 park factor for RH HR) with a full-time job.” That’s a scary combination – and given Davis’ relative youth, one that could see him stick with his star mates Braun and Gomez as part of a formidable outfield trio for the foreseeable future. Throw into the lineup Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez, and Jonathan Lucroy, and I believe I’m more than justified in fearing Milwaukee’s offensive potential for 2014.
Not just for my Reds, but the rest of the NL Central, Khrush and the rest of the gang in Milwaukee aren’t going to be an easy out.