The San Francisco Giants made an important trade Monday, acquiring Kansas City Royals outfielder Melky Cabrera for left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. Cabrera is a true center fielder and lead-off hitter, which means he fills two key holes in the Giants' roster.
Sanchez, meanwhile, joins a Royals rotation that needed him. Their starters finished 10th in the American League in strikeouts in 2011. Sanchez adds a much-needed element of swing-and-miss to the mix, having struck out nearly a quarter of all the batters he has faced in the big leagues.
The implications of this deal, though, run much deeper than those. The Royals and Giants will be much different teams for having consummated this transaction, in a number of ways. Here is a full rundown of the trade's ripple effects.
Cabrera's stellar 2011 season created a logjam in the Kansas City outfield, and made him far less movable than GM Dayton Moore probably expected when he first dealt for Cabrera. That blocked the path of Lorenzo Cain to center field at Kauffman Stadium.
Cain was a part of the package Kansas City got in return for Zack Greinke last winter, so seeing him get just 23 big-league plate appearances this year was frustrating.
Now he projects as the Royals' Opening Day center fielder. He's a marked defensive upgrade over Cabrera, who wasn't bad himself. He's got a Cabrera-like blend of average power and speed, having stolen 16 bases and hit 16 home runs for Omaha in 2011. He also has a career .377 OBP at Triple-A. Cain could slide in as a very effective replacement for Cabrera, minimizing that which the Royals lost by dealing their incumbent guy.
The Giants had a choice this winter. They knew they needed a bona fide lead-off hitter, and they knew their two biggest positional holes were at shortstop and in center field.
Given that premise, and understanding that the Giants (while not an elite spender) have some money at their disposal, Reyes made a ton of sense. That felt like a match made in Heaven.
Now, it's not going to happen. Steve Phillips still thinks it could, but it won't. The Giants clearly elected to make Cabrera their new table-setter and up-the-middle fix. They have too much else on their plate to also get serious about Reyes. The Marlins' apparent interest will only help push Reyes out of San Francisco's range.
The other thing we found out about the Giants' offseason priorities Monday was that Tim Lincecum is going to get a big, big offer on a contract extension. By shoring up their lineup at its top without spending any extra money, the Giants have kept clear the fiscal flexibility to lock up Lincecum for the very long term if the pitcher is at all interested.
Signing Reyes would have meant a six-year, nine-figure commitment. That's about what the Giants would like to get from Lincecum, and by making the deal for Cabrera, they kept that door open.
By pushing for and acquiring Sanchez, the Royals signaled their intent to contend in 2012. How so?
First of all, it's pitching the Royals most need, and Sanchez fills that need. That's an obvious element. Secondarily, though, by taking on a slightly more expensive player in Sanchez, the team showed its willingness to widen the wallet and go after some of the key pieces missing from their championship puzzle.
If the target were on 2013, the team could easily have traded a more important player in the immediate term (Billy Butler, for instance) to get a better hurler. Trading Cabrera did not substantially downgrade the team as it stood, but gaining Sanchez could have a positive impact.
Cabrera is a bit big and slow for center field, and it showed at times in 2011. He has a great arm, though, and moves smoothly enough to stick with balls blown around by the winds of San Francisco. Still, he is no Andres Torres out there. Torres is a sensational defender, a faster and more lithe athlete than Cabrera on his best day.
Cain, though, projects as a Torres type, but with a much better bat. He should be a true force in center field for the Royals, an upgrade of 20 runs made in the blink of an eye. It's important to have such a guy in a spacious center field like the one in Kansas City, and the Royals finally have their man in place.
While Torres is an exceptional fielder, his batting has made him an almost untenable liability to the Giants' everyday lineup. He was always more a fourth outfielder by profile anyway, and now that Cabrera is a Giant, he can settle comfortably into that role.
At $2.5 million or so in arbitration salary for 2012, Torres' cost doesn't yet outweigh his benefits. The Giants will bring him back, and some 50 times this season, Giants fans can pencil a late-inning move into their scorecards: Torres will enter to play center field, with Cabrera sliding over to man a corner outfield spot.
The Royals dealt for Alcides Escobar in the same deal that brought Cain in last winter. They have installed the great-glove, no-hit youngster at shortstop without remorse ever since. Following the model of his Kansas City counterpart, Brian Sabean will now give the Opening Day shortstop gig to Brandon Crawford.
Crawford is very like Escobar in basic skills. Both play tremendous defense. Both have great arms. Neither can hit, and I mean, neither can hit at all. San Francisco seemed to be looking another way, but having partially addressed their paucity of offense up the middle, they can safely hand off the job to the glove-only Crawford now.
Bruce Chen and Jeff Francis combined for the least likely 338 innings of 4.3-WAR pitching in the league last season, but both are now free agents. Sunday, it looked like both could very feasibly work the Royals for solid one-year, big-league deals and go from there. With the left-handed Sanchez now in the mix, though, that's a mile from a sure thing.
Chen is in the better position. Though he was less valuable on his own merits, his fly-ball tendencies played well to Kauffman Stadium, and to the outfielders behind him. He posted an aesthetically pleasing 3.77 ERA, over a run lower than that of Francis. The two might now be wrestling for one piece of pie, rather than each having a slice to themselves, and that will save Kansas City some money.
The Giants have made little secret that they want out from under the contract that most ruthlessly haunts their ledgers. That deal belongs to Barry Zito. He is perpetually at risk of being traded or released.
He's certainly a bit more locked in now, though, with fellow lefty Sanchez out of the picture. Madison Bumgarner remains the lefty ace of the staff, but now, they have much less depth. The rotation without Zito would be alarmingly vulnerable to even one or two injuries.
The Giants could easily have gotten a prospect for Jonathan Sanchez. They might have gotten two, but they certainly would have gotten one impact guy if they had pressed for him.
Instead, per usual, GM Brian Sabean went out and put a Band-Aid on the Giants' problems. This is a fine Band-Aid and all, but the fact that the Giants operate in such a patchwork fashion has long eroded my confidence in the judgment of Sabean. They need a process, and a bit more patience, because they got less than they ought to have gotten in this trade.