Brewers Find Opportunity in Slow Winter, Sign Lorenzo Cain

Cain returns to the team by which he was originally signed.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Two days ago, this author politely asked a major-league team — really any major-league team — to sign free-agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain. Tonight, Brewers general manager David Stearns and team ownership obliged.

This author — and others, too, including former FanGraphs editor Dave Cameron — tabbed Cain as the top value play in free agency, assuming the terms of his contract emerged as expected. The crowd and Dave each predicted a four-year, $68-million deal.

At a reported five years and $80 million, Cain is a bit less of a bargain than expected. There was no New Year’s discount for his services, for example. Nonetheless, the Brewers on Thursday night added two impact outfielders in Christian Yelich (about whom Jeff Sullivan is writing at this moment) and Cain, the top position-player free-agent available.

Cain just authored a four-win season. Even with his injury issues, he ranks 21st in position-player WAR since 2015 (13.1). J.D. Martinez, by comparison, ranks 42nd in WAR during that same period.

While many MLB teams continue to hibernate, the Brewers seized the moment Thursday. After the trade for Yelich, the Brewers improved from a projected 73 to 75 wins, according to Steamer. With the acquisition of Cain, who cost merely cash, the Brewers have added another three to four wins. Whether Steamer’s forecast for the Brewers is too pessimistic remains a question for a different post. For the moment, I think we can all agree that the Brewers have added a significant number of wins tonight. And, as Craig Edwards notes, the Brewers still have plenty of room to add payroll.

I think we can also agree that, with the sport becoming more and more extreme, increasingly populated by Haves (super teams) and Have Nots (rebuilding clubs), there is an opportunity for those teams that occupy the middle — like the Brewers — to take advantage of this market and improve their forecasts.

The Cain deal might be a year or two long from the club’s perspective, but he’s a great bet to make a short-term impact. Those who are concerned about a speed-based player entering his age-32 season might also consider the height of the peak from which he’ll begin his decline. FanGraphs alum Mike Petriello noted recently that Cain is in the top “4% of sprint speed” according to Statcast. He remains an elite athlete.

This is also a player who has more than speed and a glove in his toolkit.

Since 2015, Cain owns a .299/.356/.445 slash line and 118 wRC+. Cain might actually be getting better in some capacities as an offensive performer. Last season, for example, he posted a career-low strikeout rate (15.5%) and career-best walk rate (8.4%). His out-of-zone swing rate (30.4%) has declined by five percentage points from his 2014-2015 levels. Other underlying skills are encouraging, too: his average exit velocity last season of 89.2 mph ranked 22nd among all hitters who put at least 400 balls in play. Not only has Cain been an above-average defender in center in every season of his career (+73 DRS for his career and +5 last season), but he can really hit.

Cain will also enjoy trading in Kauffman Stadium for Miller Park as a home venue.

According to Baseball Prospectus’s park-factor splits, Miller Park, for right-handed hitters, ranked as the 19th (out of 60) most favorable place to hit (108) last season. Kansas City, by contrast, ranked 44th (96) for right-handed hitters. Cain’s road wRC+ (119) was higher than his home mark (110) last season.

For Milwaukee, Cain’s arrival almost certainly brings to an end the Keon Broxton experience in center field. As intriguing as Broxton’s blend of range, athleticism, power and plate discipline are, his inability to make contact was eroding his value. Broxton produced 0.7 WAR over 143 games last year and was projected by Steamer to be replacement level in 2018. Cain gives the Brewers a potential three- to four-win improvement in center, while Yelich will provide yet another significant bump to the lineup.

The Brewers were a surprise team a year ago. They were an interesting team before Thursday evening. Now they are a really interesting team. Per Buster Olney, they club believes there’s some internal help on the way…

The club added significant external help on Thursday.

The Cardinals and Cubs are still likely to appear above the Brewers in most forecasts, but the Milwaukee has closed the gap. And in this unusually quiet offseason, it seems pragmatic for a team in the middle, like the Brewers, to look for opportunity and seize it. Outside of a front-line starter, a team would hard-pressed to find more impact on the open market than Lorenzo Cain.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

I certainly like this deal for the Brewers’ present, and it makes sense to do it in tandem with trading away your two top center-field prospects.

I think everyone agrees this improves the Brewers dramatically for the next year or two. However, I am a little worried that in year 5 of this deal, it is going to be is going to be capital-U-Ugly.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Not unlikely, but they could have just paid him an extra 3.n million each of the first four years and been fine with it.

This was likely coordinated with their trade for and years of control over Yelich and others (though a QO might get them an extra year of Yelich, if that is still a rule then).

Much like the Pirates signed Kang exactly through the Cole and Cutch years…sigh.

6 years ago
Reply to  Alan

That’s why I’m not that down on the deal, despite not liking the mess towards the back end. If the Brewers are trying to win in the next 2-3 years, then this deal makes a lot of sense.

Joey Butts
6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Of course the last year is probably going to be ugly. That’s how long-term deals are designed. You know this.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joey Butts

Yeah, but that assumes he is going to provide enough value over the first few years to make it worth it. He was projected for 3.3 WAR next year (now 2.9…I have no idea why it went down). And his 4-win season last year came partially because he had 645 PAs (which seems unlikely to happen again, especially for him).

So I think there is pretty good reason to be quite pessimistic on Cain’s 2020-2022, and to think that his 2018-2019 are not too likely to be star-level either. And there’s nothing quite like having a 0-1 WAR outfielder in the league’s smallest market making $15 million to make life difficult.

I hope I’m quite wrong about this (and like most predictions, there’s a non-zero chance I am wrong), but I’ll also say this…the deal made a ton of sense in combination with the Yelich trade. So I don’t dislike it. I just think that in a vacuum, I don’t like the deal.