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

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