Imagine for a moment that you're the general manager of a rebuilding team. A year ago you signed a 26-year-old non-tendered outfielder with a career .267/.328/.379 line then watched him set career highs in nearly every offensive category for your team with a .305/.339/.470 season. This player is arbitration eligible this winter and a free agent after the coming season and you have another player in your organization who is a superior fielder at the same position who hit .312/.380/.497 in Triple-A this past season. What do you do with the first player?
If your answer is "sell high," you're right, and that's exactly what Royals GM Dayton Moore just did with Melky Cabrera, flipping him to the Giants for left-handed starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and minor league lefty starter Ryan Verdugo. Sanchez isn't necessarily a better player than Cabrera. He'll be 29 in two weeks, is also arb eligible this winter (working off a 2011 base salary of $4.8 million, $3.55 million higher than Cabrera's salary for last year) and a free agent after the coming season, and is coming off the worst of his four seasons as a member of the Giants rotation. However, Sanchez fits the Royals' needs much better than Cabrera.
Again, the Royals have a player in Triple-A, Lorenzo Cain, part of their take from the Brewers in the Zack Greinke trade, who could very well be an upgrade on Cabrera in the coming season. Many, myself included, felt Cain was more deserving of the Royals' centerfield job coming in to this past season, even though he isn't an elite prospect. He'll be 26 in April, and despite hitting .305/.377/.476 in Triple-A over the last two seasons, has a low-grade power/speed combo comparable to what Cabrera (18 home runs, 20 stolen bases) showed this past season (though with a higher rate of success on the bases than Cabrera's 66.7 percent), though he is a clearly superior defender.
The story behind Cabrera's break-out season was that he found new focus after being traded in Dec. 2009 and non-tendered in Dec. 2010 and got himself in great shape for the 2011 season, but it's troubling that he needed the wakeup call in the first place. Even if his career year wasn't as much of a fluke as it appears to be on the back of his baseball card, I still find it difficult to believe that he'll avoid at least some level of regression in the coming year and don't think that he meaningfully improves the Giants outfield outlook. If anything, the Giants have simply replaced free agent Cody Ross with a younger version of the same player, a tweener who is overextended in centerfield but doesn't quite hit enough to carry a corner outfield spot. Ross has more power, Cabrera more speed, but neither gets on base more often than a league average hitter. In fact, the one aspect of Cabrera's hitting that didn't peak this past season was his ability to get on base, as he drew unintentional walks at a career-worst rate of one every 22 plate appearances, posting a .339 on-base percentage that was just 34 points above his batting average.
As for Sanchez, his 2009 no-hitter, which remains the only complete game of his career, and prominent role in the starting rotation of the 2010 world champions has exaggerated the quality of his pitching. After six big-league seasons, two primarily in relief and four as a starter, Sanchez has had an ERA meaningfully above league average exactly once. That came in 2010, when his opponents hit just .255 on balls in play. That helped Sanchez lead the majors in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, thus allowing him to keep runs off the board despite also leading the majors in walks, but was largely a fluke of fortune and good team defense. In his four years in the Giants' rotation (which includes his lucky 2010 campaign, but also a 2011 campaign that saw him miss all of July due to biceps tendonitis then suffer a season-ending ankle sprain just three starts after his return), Sanchez has been inconsistent. He struck out more than a man per inning over that time, but also walked close to five men per nine innings and averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start while turning in a quality start just 39 percent of his outings.
This is not a pitcher who is likely to be a difference-maker for the Royals in the coming season, nor one they're likely to want to keep beyond this season. Instead, he is something of an upside gamble at a price that was easy to pay and a stop-gap in an area of weakness while the Royals wait for their gaggle of left-handed starting pitching prospects to emerge, the best of whom, 21-year-old John Lamb, had Tommy John surgery in June. After all, the Royals are a team that has been rumored to be preparing a multi-year offer for free agent Bruce Chen and whose second-best starter during the past season was Felipe Paulino, who was purchased from the Rockies in late May.
As for the throw-in minor leaguer, Verdugo, he'll be 25 in April and has never pitched above Double-A. Drafted out of Louisiana State in the ninth round in 2008, Verdugo pitched almost exclusively in relief before becoming a starter in Double-A this past season. The result was a season that Sanchez could have easily authored: 4.35 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.4 BB/9. As a reliever, Verdugo had an eye-popping 13.3 K/9, but still walked close to five men per nine innings and was generally old for his levels as a college product pitching in A-ball. Verdugo, who like Sanchez has a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, will open the 2012 season in Triple-A, though it remains to be seen if the Royals will use him as a starter, their area of greatest need, or return him to the bullpen.