Typically, in the free-agency era, impact up-the-middle talents like Cain are not available on January 23rd. A year ago to the day, all of Dave Cameron’s top-19 free agents had signed. As of this January 23rd, just eight of his top 20 have found a home.
Cain is coming off 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. Martinez reportedly has a five-year offer on the table, though. We’re unaware of such interest in Cain. There is a case to be made that Cain is the best remaining positional free agent available and that he’s quickly becoming the best bargain.
FanGraphs alum and MLB dot com stalwart Mike Petriello has noted the concern but also pointed out that, because Cain is starting from such a high floor, it should be less of a concern.
While it’s true that Cain will be 32 in April and that speed tends to peak early, he’s starting from such a high place — in the top 4 percent of speed, according to Statcast’s Sprint Speed, similar to Trea Turner — that even some age-based decline should still allow him to be a plus defender. But where? And how much would he help on defense? We can investigate.
Here’s a chart from Baseball Savant illustrating sprint speed by position. Note Cain’s place on the far right.
Cain is hardly a legs-only player. Since 2015, he owns a .299/.356/.445 slash line and 118 wRC+. Cain might also be getting better in some capacities as an offensive performer. Last season, 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.
Before he left for the Padres, Dave ranked Cain as his No. 2 free agent bargain.
And while Cain does get a lot of his value from his speed, he’s not a Dyson-esque slap hitter. His exit velocity measurements are almost identical to Buster Posey‘s. Of the 100 hitters who had at least 400 batted balls tracked by Statcast in 2017, Cain’s 89.2 mph average exit velocity ranked 22nd, tying him with Edwin Encarnacion, one spot behind George Springer. This isn’t a guy to whom you can just throw fastballs and get away with it.
The crowd and Dave each projected a four-year deal worth $68 million for Cain. But since no free agent has yet to sign a deal greater than three years, since deals signed after the New Year were 25% below the FanGraphs crowdsourced dollar predictions (compared to 4% above the predictions before it) from 2013 to -17, since there seems to be a lack of market for Cain, there stands a good chance that Cain can be signed for three years or less.
FanGraphs projects Cain to produced 3.3 wins in 2018. With a win worth roughly $9 million on the open market, Cain projects to create significant surplus value in the early part of a potential deal.
So who could use Cain? The following chart examines all the teams FanGraphs projects to produce less than two wins above replacement in center field.
The list, of course, contains a number of non-contenders who figure to have little interest. Had the Indians not picked up Michael Brantley’s club option, there might be a case to be made for Cleveland, but Brantley and Bradley Zimmer, who was so promising as a rookie in 2017, figure to open in left and center.
The Nationals could perhaps upgrade the position but they can also probably win their division without doing anything, and catcher remains a glaring need.
Perhaps the most interesting fit would be the Brewers. The Brewers have the motivation to try and close the projected gap between themselves and the Cubs and Cardinals, and/or contend for Wild Card berth. There hasn’t been a Cain update at MLB Trade Rumors since Jan. 4, but on that day The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Brewers had Cain on their radar. While I was among those on the Keon Broxton bandwagon in 2016, it’s fair to wonder if he will ever make enough contact to be a positive offensive contributor.
There is also a case to be made for the Mariners, Diamondbacks, Braves, or Rockies finding a spot for Cain. While none of these hopeful contenders possess a glaring vacancy in center field, they rank 26th, 28th, 29th, and 30th, respectively in projected left-field WAR. While the Braves will not want to block Ronald Acuna they could perhaps still accommodate Cain, and there is a case to be made for some of these aforementioned clubs playing Cain in left or shifting a current center fielder to left.
Cain can help some club. He can probably help some club quite a bit in the short term. Cain was already top the value play remaining among position players in free agency, and that status might only be strengthening. Cain is still a star-level talent. Someone ought to sign Lorenzo Cain.