Monday February 9th, 2015

With fantasy baseball drafts on the horizon, Michael Beller will answer a series of burning questions leading up to the start of the MLB season.

Few major leaguers would consider a season hitting .313/.371/.524 with 25 homers, 109 RBI, a .384 wOBA and 147 wRC+ a disappointment. Then again, few major leaguers can even dream of having the career Miguel Cabrera has had.

• Fantasy baseball 2015 draft kit: Everything you need to prep for your draft

Not including his rookie year of 2003 when he was called up by the Marlins midseason and helped propel them to the World Series, last season was Cabrera’s worst in many ways. And yes, we use the word “worst” quite liberally in this context. He hit 25 homers, which were the fewest of his career, and it was just the second time he failed to reach 30. It was his third-lowest wOBA and wRC+ season (and worst since 2008 for both). His batting average and OBP reached their lowest marks in six years, and his slugging percentage hadn’t been as low as .524 since the 2004 season, his first full one in the majors.

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And while a down season for Cabrera is a career year for a lot of players,  the fact remains that it wasn’t up to his standards. He still played 159 games, but he dealt with nagging injuries for a good portion of the season. He’s on the precipice of his age-32 season, and an ankle injury could prevent him from being ready for Opening Day. Cabrera launches our 2015 Burning Questions series with the following two queries. Is he still fantasy’s top first baseman? If he isn’t, is he even still a first-round pick?

Let’s dismiss of the first question right away, because that’s the easier one to tackle. Not only is Cabrera not the top first baseman, he may not be in the top three. In fact, there’s an argument that Cabrera is the last man in the position’s first tier, behind Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Abreu, Edwin Encarnacion and Anthony Rizzo. At the very least, I’d take Goldschmidt and Abreu ahead of Cabrera. Goldschmidt was well on his way to being the top first baseman last year before he suffered a broken hand in August. We’ll go in-depth on him a little later in the draft prep season, but it suffices to say for now that, despite that it was his left hand (worse for a right-handed hitter), you can bet on him being himself come Opening Day. As for Abreu, he was one of two players – the other being Victor Martinez – in the majors last year in the top 10 in homers (fourth), batting average (sixth), OBP (10th) and slugging percentage (first). He is what Cabrera was five years ago.

• ​POSITION PREVIEWS: SP | RP | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | C

With that out of the way, is Cabrera still a worthy first-round pick? In addition to those two first basemen, we can slot Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton ahead of him. That leaves him contending for the final spots in the first round with the likes of Encarnacion, Carlos Gomez, Jose Bautista and Felix Hernandez, among others. Whether or not you’d grab Cabrera there is a matter of examining last year’s relative power outage. Was it the first sign of a genuine skill reduction, or simply the vicissitudes of baseball?

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There’s reason to believe that both Cabrera’s bat speed and strike zone judgment took a step back last year. His strikeout rate reached 17.1 percent, the highest it has been since 2008. His walk rate dropped all the way to 8.8 percent, just the second time in his career it was below nine. His swinging-strike rate climbed to 10.3 percent, also his worst since 2008, and he set a career high in O-swing percentage, the rate at which a batter offers at pitches out of the strike zone.

Cabrera’s relative proclivity to come up empty manifested itself in his decreased slugging percentage last year. The following heat maps from Brooks Baseball show Cabrera’s slugging by zone. The first one is for 2012 and 2013 combined. The second is from last year.

Before last season, if you threw a pitch middle-middle to Cabrera, you were going to pay for it significantly. Last year, his slugging percentage on such pitches was just .696. It wasn’t just right down central, either. Cabrera’s slugging percentage dipped around all the edges of the strike zone. We’re not used to seeing only purple from Cabrera here, and we definitely don’t expect to find any blue. These maps, taken in tandem with his strikeout rate and plate discipline numbers, suggest that one of the best pure hitters of the last 20 years may finally be slipping just a bit.

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Cabrera was still fifth in the majors in average fly ball distance last year, but his average true home run distance was a career-low 394.2 feet, according to ESPN’s hit tracker. While Cabrera has never been the type of power hitter to put the ball into orbit like, say, Giancarlo Stanton -- 2014 was the fifth season since 2006 his average true home run distance was less than 400 feet -- that it was the lowest total by a full four feet is slightly troubling.

Having said all that, a successful fantasy baseball owner will lock in floors with both their early-round picks, as well as most of their hitters. Even a Cabrera who is just 85 percent of the hitter he was three years ago, and that’s underselling the hitter he is today, is still one of the best assets a fantasy owner can have. He remains a counting stats machine, racking up at least 100 runs and RBI in each of the last five seasons. He’s a rock-solid investment that will get your draft started down the right path. Cabrera doesn’t crack my top five for 2015, but I’m still taking him in the back half of the first round.

• BURNING QUESTION I: Is Miguel Cabrera still a first-round pick?
• BURNING QUESTION II: Will Kemp and Braun live up to their price?
• BURNING QUESTION III: Will Harper reach superstar status this year?
• BURNING QUESTION IV: Worth it to draft the oft-injured Tulowitzki?
•​ BURNING QUESTION V: Coming off surgery, how big a risk is Harvey?
•​ BURNING QUESTION VI: Invest in Adam Jones's boring consistency?
•​ ​BURNING QUESTION VII: Could Strasburg emerge as No. 1 fantasy SP?
•​ BURNING QUESTION VIII: Will Alcantara emerge as a top-10 2B?

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