Jays welcome Melky, and now they hope he can (still) hit
The Blue Jays welcomed Melky Cabrera with hugs, which shouldn't be a surprise. As with other players who have dealt with drug issues, the team (and his new fans) will care most about whether he can still perform.
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Melky Cabrera's new teammates greeted him with hugs.
His new fans will no doubt greet him with cheers.
It's easy to say that Cabrera tried to cheat his way to baseball stardom and the riches that come with it. It's easy to complain about the Blue Jays giving him a two-year, $16 million contract that actually represents a raise from the $6 million he was supposed to make (before the failed drug test) with the Giants last year.
Just ask if you hold every player to the same standard.
The fact is that most fans cheer even the worst drug cheats who help their team win. The fact is that most players don't complain about those who have cheated, especially if the one-time cheat is a teammate who is performing on the field.
And the fact is that the biggest question the Blue Jays and their fans will have about Melky Cabrera is how good he can be if he now (presumably) is going to play clean.
"If I knew with certainty, I'd probably have done a longer deal," Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said candidly, a few minutes after Cabrera appeared in camp and spoke publicly for the first time since his suspension in August.
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Cabrera said little of real interest in his session with reporters, with the excuse that there's an ongoing investigation and that lawyers told him to be careful what he said. He gave the usual "I made a mistake, and I paid the price" line that we've become accustomed to hearing from those who get caught.
He said it's in the past, although when someone asked if he could guarantee Blue Jays fans that he wouldn't make the same mistake again, he didn't exactly say yes.
"That was a mistake I made last year, 2012," Cabrera answered. "This is 2013."
Anthopoulos said that Cabrera was a little more forthcoming when the two of them spoke, and while he wouldn't reveal all the answers he got, he did say he saw some real contrition from his new outfielder.
"Like he told us, everything that's gone on, he brought it on himself," Anthopoulos said. "I didn't see him pointing a finger at anyone."
And I don't see his new teammates pointing fingers at him. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, among others, endorsed Cabrera to Anthopoulos before the signing, and Anthopoulos said Bautista offered to come to Cabrera's press conference Friday as a show of support.
In some ways, the worst might be over for Melky -- if he performs. If he hits, Blue Jays fans will no doubt love him, just as Brewers fans still love Ryan Braun, just as Cardinals fans love Mark McGwire and, yes, just as Giants fans still love Barry Bonds.
Giants fans aren't thrilled with Melky right now, judging by the reaction to his suggestion Friday that he deserves a 2012 World Series ring. (Cabrera said the Giants haven't contacted him, but a team official told the San Francisco Chronicle that Cabrera will receive a ring.) But they view Melky as someone whose positive test and 50-game suspension could have ruined their dream season, and as someone who then walked out on his teammates without any real apology.
He has served his suspension now, and if the Blue Jays are right, he isn't in any real jeopardy of getting another one for his reported involvement with the Biogenisis clinic in Miami. While Cabrera is part of the MLB investigation, he has presumably already been punished for using whatever drugs he acquired there.
Anthopoulos admits that the Blue Jays did even more homework on Cabrera than they would do on any free agent they consider acquiring. He admits that there was discussion about whether pursuing someone who just got caught cheating was the right thing to do.
"That was one of the debates -- what does your organization stand for?" Anthopoulos said.
He knows that some teams would have passed, that some teams indeed did pass.
He also knows that plenty of other teams employ or have employed players who have cheated, even players who have been caught cheating.
"The unfortunate part is he's one of many who has gone through this," Anthopoulos said.
Remember, if you're saying no one should have signed Cabrera, you're saying that a first-time positive test should carry what in effect would have been a lifetime ban.
If you're complaining about how much money he got, well, in that case it's just about deciding on his value.
What's interesting is that Cabrera is a Blue Jay only because he got caught. Without the failed test and suspension, his value on the free-agent market would have been much higher.
The Jays only considered him because they thought they might be getting a bargain.
They don't know, because they don't know for sure what the real Melky Cabrera is. Anthopoulos said it's fair to throw out the brilliant 2012 numbers as being drug-enhanced, but he thinks Cabrera can still be effective (if not as brilliant).
"I don't know what to expect," he said. "I don't expect 2012, but 2011 [when Cabrera hit .305 and drove in 87 runs for the Royals] might be realistic. Hopefully the stats at the end of the year are good."
Cabrera's year with the Royals helped win him the chance with the Blue Jays because new Jays manager John Gibbons was a Royals coach then. Gibbons wanted Cabrera.
"The kid can hit," Gibbons said. "I don't think he'll have any problems. I've only seen the kid good."
If he hits, they'll love him. His teammates will. His fans will.
As long as there are no more failed tests.