Matt Kemp vs. Melky Cabrera

 The Seattle Mariners have been linked to both Matt Kemp and Melky Cabrera. Both players would serve as offensive upgrades to what the club tossed out in right field a year ago. Neither is going to come cheap to the Mariners, or any other club, but each player’s merits and shortcomings appear to be slipping by at least some observers.

There are similarities between the two. Each are 30 years of age. Both have recent and career-long production versus left-handed pitching and both play the outfield. Neither plays the outfield well, however, but that is another similarity.

Kemp
Kemp is a better offensive player than is Cabrera, despite significantly higher strikeout rates and a slightly lower OBP over the past few healthy seasons. Kemp provides legitimate 30-homer pop and when healthy is a better baserunner.

Cabrera, however, may be the better glove than the more athletic Kemp, oddly enough. I say ‘may’ because there is one caveat; Kemp has been playing center field for most of his career and could hunker down and figure out right field if given the everyday responsibility to do so. It’s also worth noting that Kemp spent a good portion of 2013 and 2014 injured; he had ankle surgery that appeared to subside midway through ’14 when Kemp flipped the switch with the bat.

So there’s more upside in Kemp’s defense, but perhaps more risk, too, and he has more of an injury history with which to be concerned.

He’s still hitting for average and posting above-average OBPs when healthy, however, and managed 25 home runs last year while he fought back from surgery, clearly playing through the injury when he wasn’t 100 percent.

Kemp has another advantage over Cabrera offensively and that’s his experience hitting in a pitcher’s park. Cabrera spent years at Old Yankee Stadium, then did see tougher parks in Kansas City and San Francisco but his last two years have been spent in Toronto’s Rogers Centre, among the more home run, double and overall hit friendly stadiums in baseball.

I’d trust a healthy Kemp over a healthy Cabrera a little more at the plate than I would Cabrera, and Kemp brings more to the table there. Kemp is a pure right-handed hitter, however, which balances out some, but not all, of the advantages in Kemp’s favor. Batting left-handed at Safeco Field 60 percent of the time absolutely assists Cabrera’s production versus, well, not being able to do so.

 Cabrera
Cabrera, a switch hitter, possesses average power that plays up a tick in hitter’s environments such as Rogers Centre, but it’s his bat-to-ball skills that make him intriguing as a hitter.

He doesn’t walk a lot — under seven percent for his career — but he also doesn’t strike out much — under 12 percent for his career and just 10.8 percent a year ago. It’s reasonable to expect the mid-teens power to show up, even at Safeco Field, and Cabrera should continue to hit for enough average for his moderate walk rates to keep producing solid on-base marks, at least for the next few years.

He’s lost a few steps on the bases since he swiped 20 bags with the Royals in 2011 and his defense has sunk from playable in center back in 2009 to below average the past three seasons, including last season, which was a healthy one for him.

Cabrera presumably would man right field for Seattle, a position he has a little experience, but he does have good instincts, so the switch in permanent positions shouldn’t create further damning production from his defense. The Mariners already have invested big money in Nelson Cruz, who also won’t provide defensive value, so there’d be no hiding Cabrera at DH.

Cabrera, who posted a 2.6 fWAR a year ago, could repeat such value in 2015 and 2016, but could slide under two wins beyond that.

Cost
Cost is where the decision is made, in my opinion. Kemp may very well get back to fWAR ranges of 3.2-4.0 — it’s difficult to imagine MVP levels again — but even with a reasonable amount of cash involved in a trade scenario with the Dodgers, even $25 million, he’ll be due significantly more cash than will Cabrera, who is more likely to stay in the 2.0-2.5 fWAR range, if the projections on his free agent contract are in the right range of about $50-60 million.

If we assume, for argument’s sake, that Kemp comes with such cash and is owed $80-85 million over the next five years, that means the Mariners likely would be paying $25-30 million for 1.5-2.0 wins, or $12-15 million per win, which is nearly twice as much as a win should cost.

In the end, that isn’t the kind of money a team that wants to win should fret over, in my opinion. But Kemp costs even more than money because the Dodgers aren’t going to give him away for free, and recent intel suggests the Dodgers remain in preference of keeping Kemp and trading Andre Ethier, even if it means contributing significant amounts of cash to get it done.

What that means is if a club such as Seattle wants to land Kemp, it’s going to cost them and it’s going to cost them dearly. Whether it includes the likes of Taijuan Walker, Brad Miller or others, landing Kemp is going to hurt the Mariners’ talent pool, which mitigates some of the value Kemp would bring in the first place.

As I wrote here, the Mariners do not have pitching depth from which to trade, and while that may have changed a little bit with the addition of J.A. Happ, the left-hander is a free agent after 2015 which does nothing for the Mariners after this next season. Walker is under club control for six years.

Trading Miller, or Chris Taylor, doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. The club has one shortstop and their names are Miller and Taylor. I’ll say it again: The Mariners have one shortstop and their names are Miller and Taylor. Neither has established himself and the everyday answer and they complement each other well. Miller also could serve as the backup to Kyle Seager at third base, Robinson Cano at second and if he gets ample time over the offseason and in spring training, the former second-round pick could see time in the outfield to tally additional earned plate appearances.

If the Mariners make a deal for another shortstop and a mid-rotation or better starting pitcher, that changes things with Walker and one of the two shortstops, maybe both. Until then, Kemp simply is too costly, and that fact doesn’t change even if the Dodgers can be enticed into making Kemp cheaper than Cabrera in annual average salary.

If, somehow, Kemp can be had without trading from the projected 25-man roster, so be it, get it done, Jack Zduriencik. But the Dodgers are in win mode, too, and if they move Kemp they’re going to want significant winning assistance coming back. That’s just not something the Seattle Mariners have to spare.

Conclusion
Despite Kemp being the better player, and perhaps fairly significantly, it’s my opinion that Cabrera makes more sense for the Mariners. He’ll hurt them defensively a little bit and may even warrant Cruz’s presence out there that 25 percentile skipper Lloyd McClendon said he envisioned, but Kemp may be even more of a disaster than that and brings additional injury risk. Cabrera is a decent hitter and his versatility in the lineup as a capable switch hitter is intriguing.

There may be better options out there than Kemp or Cabrera, such as Justin Upton once the Braves realize they aren’t getting for him what they received for Jason Heyward, but between the two, Cabrera is the slightly better idea for Seattle. Sacrificing payroll and a second-round pick versus even more payroll and three or more valuable, controllable talents is a nightmare that may severely cut the club’s window of opportunity in half.

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 after getting his start at InsidethePark.com. He spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016. Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.

12 Comments

  1. What about Colby Rasmus? He doesn’t fit the Justin Upton/Matt Kemp archetype, but he’s a very good defensive player (not necessarily in CF), hits for power, and has a shitload of untapped talent. Besides Yasmany Tomas, he’s got the most upside of anyone on the market. He’ll cost a fraction of what Cabrera and Kemp will cost.

    Most importantly, Rasmus now would give the Ms flexibility to go all-in for Upton (or Heyward or Gordon or Cespedes) next offseason.

  2. Can’t go into the season with three outfield question marks. Ackley had a good second half and Jackson should rebound, but we don’t know what happens with them yet. Jones isn’t a starting major league outfielder and Romero should see as few at bats as possible. Coming off major surgery Bloomquist should even be considered for the outfield — it isn’t 2007 anymore.

    I do agree that the right fielder doesn’t have to be right-handed now that Cruz is in the picture, but you have a couple lefties in Cano and Seager and it’s great to have that balance whenever it is possible.

    Presumably Cruz could play some first base if necessary, and LMC had no problem running WFB at first base for spurts last season. LoMo is a question mark too, but his stock trending upward throughout last season.

  3. I’m wondering if the M’s still need to fixate on a RH/switch hitting RF? As of now, the Mariners have the following starters:

    CF Austin Jackson (R)
    C Zunino (R)
    DH Cruz (R)
    SS Miller (L)/Taylor (R)
    2B Cano (L)
    LF Ackley (L)
    3B Seager (L)
    1B Morrison (L)
    RF ? (Romero (R)/Jones (L))

    Excluding RH, we have the potential to run 4 RH hitters on any given day. Bloomquist can also fill in in LF and 1B as a RH option. It seems to me Melky is still the idea option as a switch hitter, but if a middle-of-the-oder LF right fielder is available via trade or free agency, I would be ok going that route.

    Also, should we be worried that Bloomquist and perhaps Montero are the only back ups for Morrison at 1B? Is Morrison a solid bet to produce for an entire season?

  4. You’re welcome!

    The order in the rotation is largely irrelevant outside of a playoff series. On paper the M’s of the 1-2 punch, but it’s more about having that quality of pitchers than ensuring they go in order. And yes, if Happ is indeed dealt, another guy would need to be brought in. There are still plenty of McCarthy’s and Liriano’s out there.

  5. Right on thanks for the insight. I was sort of thinking along the same lines as putting Paxton at 2 but the M’s keep talking that they have the best 1 2 punch in baseball in Felix and Kuma. I know thats all talk and doesnt matter much. I just read your new post also and its interesting but if we did trade Happ we would still need to find another starter right to replace him? Any way thanks again.

  6. You’d be surprised if he signed that deal? He’s got the advantage of age on most free agents (30) and is a two-win player. $13-16 million annually is what those players cost right now. Especially given the shortage of bats on the market.

  7. A stack of lefties isn’t ideal, but I don’t think it would pose an imminent problem. Could always run the rotation like this:

    Felix
    Paxton
    Iwakuma
    Elias
    Happ

    That gives a little more balance. Would not be surprised if the rotation is still a work in progress at this point.

  8. I couldnt agree more. The trade cost for Kemp will not come from depth we have to spare. If what the rumors are true about what they want for him 3 big time prospects he is not worth it for the M’s. He is a great player and probably worth 2 good prospects and a bullpen arm but the M’s dont have the current depth on the 25 man to give what they are asking for without hurting us. Those prospects we have they want are cheap and will have to be filled on the more expensive either by FA or additional trades making the overall cost that much more for Kemp.

    The other thing I have been thinking about since the Saunders trade is the rotation. As it stands right now we have 3 right handed (Felix, Iwakuma, Walker) and 3 left handed (Paxton, Elias, Happ) starters. Say we trade Walker like the all the rumors are saying that would leave our rotation looking like:

    Felix RHP
    Iwakuma RHP
    Paxton LHP
    Elias LHP
    Happ LHP

    That is three lefties at the bottom of the rotation in a row. Could that present a problem? No Righty at the bottom to break up the 3 straight lefties? Would the M’s consider trading Paxton instead of Walker in the rumored scenarios? Just something I have been wondering the last couple of days. Any thoughts?

    Cheers

  9. I don’t think a five year deal is terrible for Melky. Of course we’d rather see four years but in any case I think this would be an excellent addition. If the Mariners signed Melky the remaining moves would be bench roles mainly. I would think they will try to add a veteran backup at catcher, at least to compete with Sucre/Hicks in any case. I also think they still need a fourth outfielder that can play some centerfield at a passable level. I would imagine they will look to add a bullpen arm or two as well.

    I wonder what the plan for 1B backup is in case of injury or ineffectiveness by Lomo?

  10. Reports are 4 years 57 Mil for Melky same contract as Cruz.. Umm would be very suprised and it is an all in move for the.M’s.

  11. The only other deal that makes sense would be with the Rockies trading Tijuan Walker for Carlos Gonzales where there are multiple years of control on both. As for the money, Cargo is affordable with excellent upside. Kemp and Upton cost too much on top of the player going back.

  12. Get it done, Mariners! Just hurry up and sign Melky Cabrera, and that way you can hang on to Taijuan Walker and James Paxton! Kemp might be a better player, but I agree, he would cost too much.

    Jackson, Cabrera, Cano, Cruz, Seager, Morrison, Ackley, Zunino, Miller. That’s a plenty good lineup.

    Other moves might not be all that necessary, but it might be interesting to kick the tires on Kris Medlen or Brandon Beachy for the rotation, or maybe look into Wesley Wright for the bullpen.

    Whatever the M’s do, they should be fun to watch in 2015!

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