The White Sox continue to upgrade their roster. After making a big splash at the winter meetings this past week with the additions of Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson, the team reportedly signed switch-hitting free agent outfielder Melky Cabrera to a three-year, $42 million deal.
The 30-year-old Cabrera spent the past two years with the Blue Jays. After playing in just 88 games in 2013 due to left knee woes and a benign tumor in his lower back that required surgery, Cabrera rebounded to hit .310/.358/.458 with 16 homers and a 126 OPS+ in 2014. He missed the last 22 games of the season after fracturing his right pinkie finger and damaging a tendon while diving back into first base, an injury that required yet another season-ending surgery.
While his work in the outfield (primarily left field) was subpar, six runs below average according to both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, his 3.1 Wins Above Replacement still represented the third-best showing of his career after his 2012 and 2011 seasons (4.7 WAR with the Giants and 4.1 WAR with the Royals, respectively). For his 10-year major league career, Cabrera's a .286/.339/.415 hitter, with a relatively even platoon split (.759 OPS against righties, .742 against lefties).
That 2012 season, spent with the Giants, saw Cabrera nearly win a batting title by hitting 346/.390/.516, and not only did he earn All-Star honors for the first time in his career, he was the MVP of the All-Star Game. But just over a month later he was suspended 50 games after testing positive for testosterone. The back story behind his PED suspension was anything but garden variety; an investigation showed that he and his associates created a fictitious website and a nonexistent supplement on which he had hoped to blame his positive test, claiming he had ingested the offending substance inadvertently.
The ruse was soon discovered, and while Cabrera was not additionally disciplined, Major League Baseball amended its rules to prevent him from winning the batting title. He was one plate appearance short, and would still have led with the addition of a phantom at-bat, but teammate Buster Posey won the title instead. While his suspension was served in time for him to be eligible to rejoin the team for the NLCS, the team did not reinstate him, ending his tenure in San Francisco. The two-year, $16 million deal he subsequently signed with Toronto represented just a fraction of what he might have obtained as a free agent had he not been suspended.
While nearly doubling his annual salary, Cabrera's new deal with the White Sox still seems short relative to other high-profile free agents this winter. Among position players in the 28-32 age range who have emerged with multi-year deals this winter, Pablo Sandoval and Russell Martin signed for five years and Hanley Ramirez for four, with Billy Butler and Kendrys Morales getting shorter and less lucrative deals (for three and two years) in part due to subpar 2014 seasons.
At $14 million per year, Cabrera's deal is strikingly similar in average annual value to a pair of other players who have drawn recent suspensions, namely Nelson Cruz ($14.25 million per year), who signed with the Mariners earlier this month, and Jhonny Peralta ($13.25 million per year), who signed last winter. Both received four-year deals despite being older than Cabrera when they signed.
According to ESPN's Enrique Rojas, Cabrera didn't receive any four-year offers, but his shorter deal isn't necessarily a bad thing for either side. It lowers the risk for the White Sox, who don't have to worry about projecting his performance far into the future, and it allows Cabrera to spend three years in a hitter-friendly venue and then re-enter the market at a point when he'll be further removed not only from his suspension but also his sub-replacement level 2010 and 2013 seasons.
Cabrera will take over left field for the White Sox, a position from which the Sox received a .225/.297/.344 offensive performance, their weakest at any spot besides second base, last season, as well as defense that was 10 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved. The position was manned primarily by Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo in 2014; De Aza was traded to the Orioles on August 30, and now Viciedo, who hit 21 homers but batted just .231/.281/.405 with -8 DRS en route to -0.9 WAR, could be on the move as well. The Mariners, who pursued Cabrera, could be interested, though Viciedo, a career .254/.298/.424 hitter in three full seasons and two partial ones in the majors, would be a step down.
According to CSN Chicago's Dan Hayes, Cabrera is likely to bat second, ahead of Jose Abreu, and would represent a considerable upgrade on the .237/.279/.355 showing that the team received from its No. 2 hitters in 2014, primarily Alexei Ramirez and the since-traded Gordon Beckham and Marcus Semien.
Coming off a 73-win season, the team's third losing season in its last four, and a fourth-place finish in the AL Central, general manager Rick Hahn has been particularly aggressive this winter. Thus far, he's signed a trio of free agents in first baseman/DH Adam LaRoche (two years, $25 million), lefty reliever Zach Duke (three years, $15 million) and closer Robertson (four years, $46 million) and traded for righty starter Samardzija. All four of those players represent substantial upgrades on their 2014 counterparts, and with full seasons from Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia, who combined to play just 169 games last season due to injuries, an offense that ranked eighth in the league in scoring at 4.07 runs per game should be substantially better.
The team could still use a few other improvements here and there, including at second base, but the message thus far this winter is clear: The Sox don't intend to remain among the AL Central's also-rans.