About 10 months ago, Melky Cabrera was on his way to a four-, five-, or even six-year deal. He was going to be the rare free agent who could help a team in the short term without sacrificing too much of the long term, as he would be just 32 or 33 on the back end of his new, monster deal. Would he go for $80 million? A cool $100 million? There's a worth/Jayson Werth pun to make, but I'm only on my first cup of coffee. Point is, Melky had a great chance to be the next Werth.
Then there was unpleasantness. Turns out that Cabrera was enjoying Better Hitting Through Chemistry, and the suits found out about it. He went from a six-year deal to a two-year deal, a $16 million annual salary to a $16 million contract. Some folks thought he was lucky to get that much.
In an offseason with big splashes, loud noises, and lengthy commitments, though, Melky was perfect for the Blue Jays. Considering the modest price, what was the worst that could happen?
That's pretty close to Juan Pierre in one of his bad years, but without the base-stealing prowess. After two straight 4.5-win campaigns, Cabrera has been the definition of a replacement player for the first month of the 2013 season. Even his teammates have decided to ignore that he exists.
It's just easier that way.
The lack of production leads to a natural question. Odious, but not unreasonable. I wouldn't want to ask it out loud, but Buster Olney doesn't give nearly as many damns.
@buster_espn Hard to believe!— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) May 7, 2013
Maybe it was just an unrelated fact, Chipper! But when challenged by a response, Olney dove in:
@shaneheyworth So you're saying it's wrong to speculate Melky's performance dip could be related to PEDs? Seriously? It's completely fair.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 7, 2013
The notes I saw in comments sections and on Twitter were scolding Olney. The reasons given, sometimes in the same breath: causation isn't correlation, you probably shouldn't make too much out of a bad month, and GO BACK TO SALEM, WITCHFINDER GENERAL. People get so touchy.
But Melky is kind of an interesting case study. When most players are popped for PEDs, it's rare to find a stat line that has what appears to be a nice, tidy demarcation line. As in, player is awful, player busts out a can of spinach, the Popeye music starts playing, player wins All-Star Game MVP. That's sure what it looked like with Melky. And now it looks like the spinach is gone.
The choices, then:
1. Assume that without PEDs, Melky is as bad as he was when the Braves non-tendered him;
2. Assume that the PEDs were a small part of his success over the last two seasons, and chalk the slow start up to sample-size issues;
3. Throw up your hands, give up on that kind of speculation, and wait for the rest of the season.
The first choice is easy to make. It's a nice, linear progression that doesn't make you think too much. Bad player takes PEDs, becomes good player. There isn't a lot of nuance there, which is good, because nuance always gets in the way. Stupid nuance.
Except Melky has also said that he's in much better shape than he was with the Braves and Yankees. I'm reluctant to play the x-ray-vision game, but he definitely looked a little different back with the Braves. Combine the visuals with his own words, and you have at least a plausible alternate explanation for his career resurgence. He started to take better care of himself. Hitting the free-agent market a year before you're supposed to will do that to a fella.
The second choice is also easy to favor, at least among enlightened Internet types, but I'm not sure why. It's at the other end of the spectrum from the Spinach Theorem, but it's a little too far for me. PEDs are something between a placebo and a 5-Hour Energy shot -- an injectable Phiten necklace? I can't buy that. The players risking millions to make more millions, the players risking suspension to keep on the forbidden path seem to think the drugs do something substantial. I suppose some of them feel that way about Phiten necklaces, too, but they aren't risking suspension and shame for the necklaces.
The third choice is the only reasonable one to take right now. Without a lab, some drugs, pints of blood, and before-and-after physical tests, it's still impossible to know where PEDs begin and where a player's natural talent ends. Melky could be suffering from spinach withdrawal. Or he could be in the middle of the kind of month that happens to every hitter. Blanket statements are silly after 100 at-bats in any context. In this case, any kind of blanket statement about Melky would be especially silly.
But to ask the question? I don't think that's unreasonable. It's only unreasonable to run too far with your conclusion. Melky was a bad player, and at some point he took PEDs, possibly right before he became a good player. Now when it's safe to assume he's off the PEDs, he's underwhelming again. Careful of that causation/correlation trap door, but refusing to even entertain the connection doesn't seem like the most comprehensive way to evaluate Melky Cabrera.