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Melky Cabrera and the 2022 Giants Outfield Situation

The 2022 Giants need an outfielder. The 2012 Giants had one and then lost one. There’s a connection here...

Colorado Rockies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

A couple weeks ago, on January 14, 2022, former San Francisco Giants left fielder Melky Cabrera announced his retirement from baseball.

We don’t talk about Melky Cabrera anymore. He’s effectively been erased from our fan base’s collective consciousness, mainly because, well, the obvious: he tested positive for a banned substance, got served a fifty game suspension in the middle of a division race with the Los Angeles Dodgers and cut short one of the most exciting seasons put together by a Giants outfielder since a guy named Barry Bonds retired.

The only reason Cabrera isn’t referred to as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in Bay Area circles is because his suspension didn’t really matter. His failed drug test and duplicitous-slash-goofy cover-up attempt is a non-issue because the Giants ultimately won the World Series in 2012 and won it again two years later. Melky Cabrera became a bitter afterthought to a great season and even more thrilling middle championship run.

But when the news broke, it tolled like funeral bells.

Cabrera led the league with a .346 batting average and had accrued a 4.8 WAR in 113 games. Even after missing the final 48 games of the season, he had the second highest WAR team total behind Buster Posey (7.6), who would take home National League MVP honors at season’s end. The Giants were losing a key offensive table-setter who was productive from both sides of the plate, got on base and ran them well, and played stellar defense in left field.

Gregor Blanco’s diving catch in the 7th always makes the highlight reels in Matt Cain’s perfect game recap, but Cabrera also made a fairly impressive catch at the wall the previous inning to preserve the no-hitter. He also homered in the first inning.

So why am I bringing him up? It’s kind of interesting. It’s an excuse to open up way too many tabs to Baseball Reference and put my five year old chromebook on the brink of collapse. It’s more fun to think about than the MLB and MLBPA negotiations?

Yes and yes and yes and also, Melky Cabrera got me thinking about the recent history of the Giants outfield, and their present conundrum going into 2022.

There’s a chart on Baseball Reference that shows the most common players by games played at each position through franchise history. Basically, it shows which player played which position in every season.

Melky Cabrera played the most games in left field for the Giants in 2012. He played in 113 games before his suspension, 106 of those he made an appearance in left. Since 2012, only Angel Pagan in 2016 has made more appearances in left (123). Before that, in 2008, Fred Lewis appeared in the corner outfield position 112 times. Before that there was Bonds, who had that patch of grass locked down for a while.

The growing pains were inevitable after Bonds’s departure–and to be fair, anyone after Barry was going to be disappointing, light-hitting, just a tiny bit underwhelming–but the fact remains that no player has really stuck in that position in the fourteen seasons since.

While center had Angel Pagan for a few years and right had Hunter Pence and now Mike Yastrzemski, left field has been a strange and odder quilt of one-year patch jobs and shoulder shrugs. There were mid-season pickups like Cody Ross and Pat Burrell, slap-hitting free agents like Nori Aoki, lumberjacks like Michael Morse, utility men like Gregor Blanco–or the position has just been a playground for platoon experimentation.

Melky Cabrera’s 4.8 offensive WAR in 2012 was by far the highest total for a left fielder since Barry Bond’s 10.6 total in 2004. WAR is not a silver bullet stat, but it is a good indicator of general success and consistency. Melky Cabrera’s 2012 was no-doubt a success and arguably has not been topped by an outfielder since.

Last season, 11 players occupied left field for the Giants. 5 of them made more than 30 appearances at the position. In 2020, 9 different outfielders. In 2019, 14.

This is not inherently a bad thing. As you know, 2021 was arguably the best regular season in franchise history for the Giants and one of their strengths was in-game substitutions, hunting for favorable match-ups at the plate. A revolving door in left created the flexibility needed for that tinkering and allowed Kapler and Co to play the hot hand–whether that be Alex Dickerson or Darin Ruf or LaMonte Wade Jr. or Mike Tauchman.

Don’t tell Barry this…but he never won a World Series. The only thing a familiar face at any position season after season guarantees you is a bobble head.

I think Melky Cabrera was primed to get a Giants bobble head. He was 27 in 2012. He was coming off a good year in 2011 when the Royals traded him for Jonathan Sanchez and a pitching prospect. The 2011 Giants were terrible offensively, Cabrera was supposed to be a boost and ended up a lightning rod. His unexpected surge coupled with Buster Posey’s return made the San Francisco Giants into playoff contenders.

He was also just exciting to watch. You can hear it in Duane Kuiper’s voice as he narrates Cabrera charging a sinking liner in left, or barreling around second after a line drive into the right center gap. For a city and fan base who fell in love with a band of misfits in 2010, Cabrera was what people needed: a spark, a thrill, a nickname. Admirers in matching white and bow ties congregated in the left field bleachers. The Melk Man and his Melk Men.

Cabrera set a franchise record by collecting 51 hits in the month of May. He laced more triples than home runs and logged a 1.104 OPS that month. He earned an All-Star nod and took home the game’s MVP award. He threw himself into the stands along the left field line and emerged on a throne of linked arms, the ball in his glove. Members of the Melk Men grew.

For those 113 games, Melky Cabrera had our heart. I’m sure many of us thought it was the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship. Cabrera’s season numbers would guarantee him many suitors, offering up a multi-year deal and exorbitant sums during his free agency in the off-season–but his favor among the San Francisco Faithful would put the Giants as front runners in the bidding war. It felt like he was primed to be a staple in the outfield by the Bay for seasons to come.

Things didn’t work out that way. Hearts were broken. The Melk Men wept. Maybe it was for the best. It’s hard to cry over spilt melk when, again, the Giants go on to win two of the next three championships.

But Melky Cabrera’s 2012 has a lot of qualities the front office should look for as they look to fill the corner outfield job posting. He was young–a five or six year deal would’ve put him through his age 33/34 season. He wasn’t a home run masher by any means, but he slugged .516 as a switch-hitter. Most of his plate appearances came as a lefty, but in 129 at-bats as a right-handed batter against a LHP, he slugged .667.

His .346 BA and .390 OBP meant he was consistently finding ways to get on base. His .380 batting average for balls in play would’ve led the Majors in 2021. Cabrera was never a comfortable at-bat for a pitcher. A feisty plate appearance from him could benefit the next batter in line. The 2022 Giants need someone like that in their lineup.

Rewinding through Melky Cabrera at-bats, you can see the explosiveness in his swing. It was big and quick and limb-y–slapping the ball into the opposite field, pulling it down the line. He wasn’t off the rails, but he could do something with a pitch out of the zone. There was some unpredictability there, some unchecked aggression. Akin to Pablo Sandoval. Maybe some Will Clark.

The Giants just lost the face of the franchise in Buster Posey. Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, though reinvigorated, are not spring chickens. Logan Webb is new and compelling, but doesn’t play every day. The outfield is currently made up of good players that can be mixed and matched a hundred different ways depending on the game and inning. That set-up can be successful, but would probably be more effective and consistent with a perennial cornerstone.

There is room and money and desire for the Giants to make a big move and land someone young and proven who can help solidify the San Francisco outfield for four or five seasons. Maybe that’s Kris Bryant. Maybe that’s Seiya Suzuki. Both have their pros. Both have their unknowns.

Personally, I’m a little indifferent to who ends up cannon-balling into the deep end; as a fan, I just want to see a splash.