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Friday, January 10, 2014
Hall of 100: How high can Miggy climb?

By David Schoenfield

Miguel Cabrera signed for a Venezuelan-record $1.9 million ... Making his pro debut at 17, Cabrera stood out as the best position prospect on stacked Rookie-level Gulf Coast League club. For his age, Cabrera has an advanced approach at the plate. He has a great eye and a compact swing to go with plus power. He could contend for batting crowns and home run titles. In the field he has a solid, accurate arm and a quick release. His hands are soft and more than sufficient to play shortstop. Cabrera's speed is below-average, he has a stocky build and his legs tend to be a bit heavy. Those attributes, plus his long frame, have prompted speculation about a move to third base. ... If all goes well he should challenge for a big league job by 2003.
-- Baseball America 2001 Prospect Handbook


Well, you can't deliver a much better scouting projection than that, especially considering Cabrera had hit .260 with two home runs in 57 games for the rookie league Marlins. The report also was accurate about Cabrera reaching the majors in 2003. That was the year Cabrera's power finally developed. He'd hit seven home runs in the Midwest League in 2001, nine in the Florida State League in 2002. He tore up Double-A at the start of 2003 and was soon promoted to the majors. By the World Series, Marlins manager Jack McKeon was batting his 20-year-old rookie cleanup. In his first full season in 2004 Cabrera hit .294 with 33 home runs and 112 RBIs.

He hasn't stopped hitting, of course, and has churned out 10 straight 100-RBI seasons, three straight batting titles (and a career average of .321), nine seasons of 30-plus homers, a Triple Crown and back-to-back MVP awards. Cabrera is at the pinnacle of his powers and debuts at No. 45 in the ESPN Hall of 100, just behind Sandy Koufax and one spot in front of Warren Spahn. It's a pretty lofty ranking for a player who doesn't turn 31 until April.

Is it too high? I think it's probably a little premature to rank Cabrera in the top 50. There is danger in ranking a player mid-career; we can't predict the second half after all. While it's easy to project three or four more monster seasons for him plus a decline phase that will lead to some huge final totals, we don't know if that's what will happen.

Consider Ken Griffey Jr. Through his age-30 season, Griffey had just completed his first season with Reds. He'd hit 40 home runs for the fifth straight season (and seventh in eight, the exception being 1995 when he broke his wrist) and looked like a slam dunk to not only reach 700 home runs but surpass Hank Aaron's 755. Griffey had 438 home runs, 1,270 RBIs and a .296 career average, similar to Cabrera's totals of 365, 1,260 and .321. If we'd voted on a Hall of 100 back then, Griffey probably ranks in the top 30, headed to top-10 status.

We know what happened. He battled injuries. He never hit 40 home runs again and reached 30 just twice, finishing with 630. He hit .300 just one more time and .260 over his final 10 seasons. He added weight and his defense declined. Griffey ranks 35th on the Hall of 100 list and give or take a few spots that feels about right.

Now that's just a warning. Cabrera has been one of the most durable players in baseball history, with only two seasons where he has played fewer than 157 games -- 150 in 2010 and 148 last year. But were last year's injuries a sign of things to come? Cabrera played through a groin tear and had surgery after the playoffs, and it clearly hampered his production as he hit .278 with one home run in September. He's not getting younger. Still, considering his history, he's as good a bet as anyone to remain healthy through his 30s.

Two other reasons I think the No. 45 ranking is a little high for now. His career length is still a little short. Compare to, say, Chipper Jones, No. 50 on the Hall of 100. Chipper has 789 more games played and nearly 3,500 more plate appearances. To play with the big boys, you need dominance and longevity (Koufax being the exception).

The final consideration is perhaps even more important: Cabrera's defense. He's never been a plus defender -- he was below average in the outfield at the start of his career, below average at third base, adequate at best at first base and then well below average when moved back to third base the past two seasons.

Baseball Reference rates Cabrera as minus-79 runs defensively in his career. The only position player in the top 50 rated worse is Derek Jeter at a whopping minus-234, but at least Jeter played a key up-the-middle position. The next-lowest totals for players ranked higher are Pete Rose at minus-54, Joe Morgan at minus-49, Mickey Mantle at minus-42 and Ted Williams at minus-32. No other top-50 players are rated below average.

This shows up in Cabrera's career, which stands at 54.6 WAR right now via Baseball Reference. That puts him well below most of the players above him -- even Jeter is at 71.6 (Chipper is at 85.1).

You can point out that Williams is ranked fourth on the Hall of 100 despite his indifference on defense. Well, as great as Cabrera is with the bat, Williams was a different beast. His on-base percentage of .482 dwarfs Cabrera's .399. Williams led his league in OPS in 10 times, Cabrera twice (the past two).

But where will Cabrera end up? He has averaged 7.3 WAR the past three seasons. If he churns out 20 WAR over the next three years he's up to 75 and will just be turning 34. With normal aging maybe he adds on another 20 WAR or so, putting him somewhere in the range of 45 to 35 all time. With a little longer peak, maybe he vaults into the top 30. That's just a rough statistical evaluation. A couple of big postseasons -- maybe another World Series title -- would help cement his legacy. Another MVP or two will help as well.

And that's the best part: Cabrera still has a lot of baseball left to play.