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Melky as the starting left fielder?

I suspect that both Johnny Damon and the Yankees will be moving on shortly, leaving Scott Boras to work his magic elsewhere and Brian Cashman to find another left fielder.  Melky Cabrera seems to be the most logical in-house replacement, because he’s young, athletic, and inexpensive.  I want to take a closer look, though; just because he can play there doesn’t automatically mean he should. 

Melky bounced back from a horrible 2008 to hit .274/.336/.416 in 2009.  He gave us some reasons to be optimistic, posting a career-high Isolated Slugging Percentage (.142) and a career-high in pitches per plate appearance (3.87).  Let’s not get carried away, though.  His .259 EQA and 99 OPS+ meant he was squarely average at the plate.

That's the first problem.  A team may not rely on their left fielder to hit as well as, say, their first basement does, but left fielders are still typically required to be above-average hitters.  In fact, over the past three seasons, the average American League left fielder has posted a .769 OPS, about ten points higher than OPS of the entire AL over that time and seventeen points higher than Melky’s career best. 

Further complicating matters is that Melky wouldn’t be replacing a fictitious average hitter, he’d be replacing an excellent one.   Johnny Damon’s 2009 season looks a lot like a career year from a good hitter, so although he probably won’t hit .282/.365/.489 again (at least outside of Coors Field), .280/.360/.460 would be realistic, and still very good, going forward. .

Now obviously, the same good things cannot be said about Damon’s defensive abilities.  He doesn't play well up against the outfield wall, looks extremely rigid when diving for balls, and has one of the worst outfield arms in baseball at this point.  Surprisingly, Baseball Prospectus actually had Damon at +4 FRAA last year, while Fangraphs ranked him at -9.2 UZR.  Considering his age and what I’ve seen with my own two eyes, though, I highly doubt Damon will be above-average going forward.  Melky should move better on the field by simple virtue of the fact that he’s a decade younger than Damon, but again, let’s not get carried away.  Baseball Prospectus has Cabrera at 3 career FRAA over the equivalent of about a full season in left field, while Fangraphs has him at 4.0 UZR/150 in left.  It’s also important to note that three quarters of Melky’s left field experience came in 2006.  So while he figures to be a solid left fielder, don’t confuse him with Carl Crawford.

Put this all together and you’ve got a dilemma.  As things stand today, Melky would be a below-average hitter for the position, and his glove, while presumably solid, would not be elite, and therefore probably not good enough to make up for his offensive shortcomings.  Even factoring for some regression from Damon both offensively and defensively, Cabrera figures to be the lesser player next year.  This is not to say that Melky still can’t improve as a hitter.  The increased selectivity he showed at the plate in 2009 could lead to him taking more walks, making better contact, and hitting for more power down the road, I just wouldn’t hand him the starting left field job until he does.

Brian Cashman should consider his options, ranging from signing a free agent to moving Curtis Granderson to left.  Melky isn’t good enough to start in left field, at least not yet, and having a stacked lineup around the rest of the field is no excuse to give too much playing time to a player who is neither an excellent hitter nor an excellent fielder.