Lorenzo Cain might be one of the most underrated players in baseball. Since the start of the 2014 season, he’s been the 11th-most valuable player in baseball, according to rWAR, just behind Joey Votto. And, perhaps more relevant to our weird bubble, just ahead of Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton. He’s hit a cool .300 over those last four seasons, playing a brilliant defensive center field, stealing 96 bases, and doing everything well.
If the Giants could create a free agent target in a lab, it would be a speedy, rangy center fielder they could slap at the top of their lineup. Here, friends, is that center fielder.
Except there’s a catch. There always is. Cain will be 32 next year, and he’s expecting to get paid as if he’s going to repeat the seasons he had when he was 28, 29, 30, and 31. Which he might! But I would like to exercise some caution about paying a lot of money for center fielders in their 30s.
Once upon a time, there was a center fielder who also did everything well. He hit for average, stole 29 bases, and played a fine defensive center field. He was going to be 31 the next year, but he still got a four year, $40 million contract because, c’mon, how poorly could he really age?
Poorly! By the time his contract was up, Angel Pagan was completely unplayable in center field, and he was mostly unplayable in left. In 2015, he had one of the worst seasons in Giants history. We’ll always remember the good times. But there were certainly some uncomfortable moments toward the end.
Now, Pagan isn’t a perfect comparison to Cain, but it’s a good enough comparison to put him as the no. 2 comp for Cain’s “similar batters through age 31” section on Baseball-Reference. Pagan’s defense wasn’t at the same level, even in his prime, so there are differences. Still, you know what can happen to fast and athletic players once they’re on the other side of that hill.
Once upon a time, there was another center fielder, this one a Gold Glove winner. He hit .309 with power, and, look, it’s Aaron Rowand. I don’t know what happened to him in 2007, but it turns out the All-Star season was the anomaly, and both his glove and bat aged poorly. He was never as fast as Cain, and his offensive game was built more around power, but the larger point is that it’s rare for center fielders to glide gracefully into their 30s, doing the same things they’ve always done.
It is possible for a center fielder to age gracefully. If Cain ages as well as Mike Cameron did, a four-year deal would work out just fine. Man-buzzard Steve Finley was immortal. And it took years and years for age to catch up to Torii Hunter. If you think that Cain isn’t in their class, re-read that first paragraph. He is most definitely in that class, and we shouldn’t be stunned if he’s still performing at a high level in 2020.
There’s still a risk, though. And while it’s a risk that some teams can take, consider where the Giants will be in 2020. They’ll have a roster with ...
- A 33-year-old Buster Posey making $21.4 million
- A 34-year-old Johnny Cueto making $21.8 million
- A 35-year-old Jeff Samardzija making $19.8 million
- A 33-year-old Brandon Crawford making $15.2 million
- A 32-year-old Brandon Belt making $17.2 million
- A 35-year-old Mark Melancon making $19 million
That’s over $115 million, and it’s is before you get to the part where Madison Bumgarner will be expecting a new contract and Joe Panik will be in his final year of arbitration. I’m not saying that the Giants are doomed. I’m just saying this is a roster that’s already tapped when it comes to over-30 long-term deals.
If you’re going to cover your eyes and add Giancarlo Stanton to this mix, that’s one thing. He’ll be 30 in 2020 and at the height of his brawny powers. The expectation would be that he would still help that season, with 2023, 2024, et cetera, being the bigger worries.
With Cain, though, you have to treat him like a normal free agent, which means that the decline has to be factored in. You’re not paying him for what he’ll do in 2020. You’re paying him for now, now, now. And that happens to be a player who’s the perfect fit for the Giants.
The Giants can’t play that game, though. They’ve already booked up their commitments for 2020, and there’s no way to commit something like $130 million to seven over-30 players, when it’s logical to assume that at least two or three of them won’t be helping at all. It’s not improbable to think that five or six of those players aren’t giving their team a lot of production in 2020. The world is a vampire.
That’s the argument against Cain, just based on the contract. He’s a great player, and I would love him on the Giants. The future commitments weird me out, though. Either the Giants need young players, or they need players on short-term deals. Cain is neither.
Then factor in the draft picks. In addition to their top pick, the Giants will have the 40th-overall pick (roughly) and a fifth-rounder after that if they don’t sign a free agent who received a qualified offer. Cain got such an offer, which means that not only would he get a huge contract, but the Giants would essentially trade prospects for him like it’s a deadline deal. I’m definitely not a prospect-hugger, but that’s still a high price to play for a player who fits a win-now strategy on a team that really has no idea if they’re built to win now.
We didn’t even talk about how Cain would probably push the Giants over the luxury tax barrier again, which would have ramifications for next year and beyond.
Lorenzo Cain would make the Giants much better in 2018. He’s a dynamic, excellent player. I’m worried about the hole the organization has dug for itself, though, both with the weak farm system and the long-term contracts that are going to become liabilities soon. Cain would make both of those worse, and I cannot endorse his candidacy.
Plus, I have a ton of “cain.gif” and “cain.jpg” files, and it would get far too confusing. Thanks.