The Red Sox seem to be headed towards a low(er)-cost replacement for David Ortiz at DH, targeting the likes of Carlos Beltran for short-term deals and accepting that they’ll be sacrificing quality for flexibility at the position. But there’s one curve that’s been thrown into the situation thanks to the possibility of a rebuilding Tigers team: the idea of a trade for Miguel Cabrera.
Throughout this saga, there’s been a level of acceptance that while the Red Sox would be putting someone at DH in David Ortiz’ place, they wouldn’t have much of a chance to really replace him, even if we looked only at his in-game production. Miguel Cabrera, though? He might just manage that. In 2014, Cabrera hit .313/.371/.524. That was his worst season since 2009. He is a monstrous hitting machine who shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his age 34 season who is one of the few players who could go hit-for-hit with David Ortiz at the plate over the years.
When it comes to figuring out whether this would be a deal the Red Sox are interested in, it makes sense to compare Cabrera to the other options on the market. But there’s really only two who are at all similar, and one of those—Joey Votto—isn’t necessarily an option at all given how vocal he’s been about his desire to stay in Cincinnati, making it hard to infer much of anything from Boston’s apparent lack of interest in the Reds slugger.
That leaves Edwin Encarnacion, the other legitimately big-ticket option at DH.
First, let’s compare the likely contract for Encarnacion to Miguel Cabrera’s current deal. It’s anyone’s guess where Encarnacion actually lands, but he’s at least come out and said he’s seeking five years and $125 million. I think we can expect his actual deal to come in short of that—agents open high, after all—so let’s look more at between four years, $92 million and five years, $110 million. If there’s still a good bit of space in there, it’s at least a range to work with.
This compares extremely favorably with Cabrera, who comes in at around $30 million per year for the next seven years. In other words: he’s basically owed David Price’s entire contract. The difference between that and Encarnacion’s likely contract is profound. Cabrera would need to bring a whole lot more to the table to be worth the difference.
And he does do that, at least. Over the last five years, taking into account only the seasons since Encarnacion became Encarnacion as we know him, Cabrera has Encarnacion beat by nearly 70 points in OPS, and 20 points in OPS+. To put that in a Boston context, that’s similar to the difference between Xander Bogaerts and Travis Shaw in 2016.
The case for Cabrera is also aided by age, or at least the appearance of it. Encarnacion is only a few months older than Cabrera, but where Encarnacion’s season had a couple red flags of a player headed the wrong way, Miguel Cabrera’s did not. His numbers were down slightly, but not significantly, and his K-rate didn’t spike in the way Encarnacion’s did. With E5, there’s a fear that maybe he’s only got a year or two left in him, and those years not at full capacity. With Miguel Cabrera, you can be pretty sure he’s got gas left in the tank.
The problem is, of course, that he has to make that gas last about three years longer than Encarnacion does as is, and it’s hard to give any player credit for that many years before they even start to decline as is.
Still, I’d argue that looking at them purely in terms of contracts and production, Miguel Cabrera at seven years and $210 (a little more due to backweighting) is a pretty reasonable jump to make from Encarnacion at around half of that. He’s not twice as good, but there’s a very real advantage to having truly premium players like Cabrera for a team with as many young, cost-controlled players as the Red Sox have at various positions.
That, however, brings us to one of the two big problems. If the Red Sox have those young players now, what will they have in three years? Hell, what do they have after the Cabrera trade? Say what you will about the speculated Encarnacion deal, at least he costs the Red Sox only a draft pick in terms of talent, assuming things don’t change too dramatically with the new CBA (and, if they do, they are likely to head in the direction of making signing a qualifying offer free agent less punishing). Cabrera? The Tigers have a premium talent on their hands, and it’s hard to say that they need to go all-in on a rebuild even if GM Al Avila signaled a step in that direction. After all, they won 86 games last year. If the Tigers are handed their future on a plate with a package featuring players like Moncada, Devers, and/or Kopech, they can jump on it. If not, they can just hold onto Miguel Cabrera and aim to contend with him in the very near future.
The Red Sox? Well it just doesn’t make that much sense for them to play ball. Yes, they’d be improving their 2017 team by a decent bit, but not to the point where it guaranteed them anything in the years to come. The playoffs are simply too hard to predict to justify pushing that all-in when even a world-beating team like the Cubs came as close as they did to losing to a red-hot Indians team that entered the playoffs looking like an afterthought. There’s just not enough certainty possible in seven-game sets.
On the other hand, they’d be completely shooting themselves in the foot down the line. Cabrera’s contract might start to get truly onerous (with his decline) right around the time that the Sox find themselves unable to re-sign their young talent as it hits free agency. The guys they had in line to replace them? Gone with the trade. If the Red Sox were ever going to do this, the strategy would have to be doing everything possible to improve the team over the next few seasons, then accepting that the first half of the 2020s is going to be a bit of a disaster barring a miracle.
If that dire projection has you concerned, well, take heart. Because the other big problem with this is that the entire conversation has been based on the idea that the Red Sox would want to sign his comparison in Edwin Encarnacion in the first place, and it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Instead, they really do seem to be focused in on the shorter deals available, likely with an eye to the upcoming 2018-2019 class featuring so many of the top talents in baseball. It’s certainly true that a talent like Cabrera could be the type to sway them onto a different philosophical track, but it’s certainly worth noting that, at least to start, the Red Sox’ position right now seems to be to reject anything that will take them out of that free agent smorgasbord.
So a Cabrera trade is interesting, because it’s Miguel Cabrera and that’s always going to be interesting. But it’s not terribly likely, not simply from the standpoint of “blockbusters are hard to pull off”, but because of how little it seems to fit with the intended and optimal direction for the Red Sox.