Can the Indians sign Lorenzo Cain?

Apr 18, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain (6) dives for a ball in the eleventh inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at Kauffman Stadium. The Giants won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With the stagnant 2017-2018 hot stove season slowly picking up steam, the question of the Cleveland Indians potentially signing the Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain to a team friendly deal have slowly crept into the social media psyche. Cain was projected to get a four-year, $70 million deal via, but like many other top free agents, he hasn’t found a team to ante up the money…yet.

There are many insiders who have proclaimed the Cleveland Indians done in the open free agent market, and if you have paid attention to the front office mechanics, I think you’ll find that this is most likely true. But over the past two years, the Indians haven’t been afraid to make a deal if they think they’re beating the market value.

Is it possible that Cain’s asking price will drop, as price tags tend to do once you get past the first of the new year during the hot stove season? And, if Cain’s price tag does drop significantly, is it possible that the Indians could sneak in and sign him to patrol center field at Progressive Field?

Neither question is an easy one to answer.

The Market

To answer the first question, you have to take a bigger look at the market. Usually, the way things generally play out from year-to-year during Major League baseball’s offseasons is that most teams and free agent players wait for the top positional players to sign, to help set the market. Once that happens, agents and teams have a more clear sense of the type of money to ask for, and perhaps more importantly, know the teams that are now looking to quickly strike a deal because they missed the top target. Take last season as an example, when the Mets signed Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $110 million deal, as the perceived top free agent offensive talent on the market. Cespedes, who was believed to be looking for a five-year, $125 million deal, signed to less years, but slightly more per year in that deal.

Edwin Encarnacion, the perceived second best offensive player in last year’s market, who was believed to be looking for a four or five-year deal, in the $20-$25 million range, held out almost a month past Cespedes. He continued to hunt down that longer-term deal, before taking less years than he wanted, but still gaining that $20 million dollars per season with the Indians.

This season seems to have a similar tier of “top free agents,” if not slightly below.

Perceptually, the top two offensive free agents available are likely J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer. While I don’t want to get into perception and reality, both have a skill-set or level relative to prime that puts them at, or near, the top of the free agent market. I don’t think they have a clear advantage over the next four or five players (Cain included), but I do think if you took a consensus, you’d find these two names either at, or around the top. Pitching-wise, the top available free agent starters are Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. All four players remain free agents on January 12, while other players, like 2017 Indians Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce, have slowly begun to sign deals with other clubs.

Now, I’m not sure why there is a slow down this year regarding free agency. Is it because next year’s free agent class is so good? Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Andrew Miller and probably Clayton Kershaw (who can, and should, opt out of his deal) will all be available. That, combined with the rather lackluster-ish crop of free agents this year (based on fWAR), and Scott Boras (represents Hosmer, Moustakas, Arrieta, and Hosmer, but NOT Cain), and the new CBA, has all likely combined to create this slug-like pace.

So will prices drop for a player like Cain? What super-agent Scott Boras has taught us in recent years, is not necessarily.

Max Scherzer didn’t sign with the Washington Nationals in 2015 until January 21, and to a seven-year, $215 million deal. On January 25, 2012, Prince Fielder signed a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. Both were Boras clients. But you can see that these deals are few and far between, and tend to focus on an elite-skilled player.

Where does Lorenzo Cain fit?

Lorenzo Cain is an interesting case. He isn’t represented by Scott Boras, and it’s quite likely that he’s waiting out the process for his fellow Royals to see if they stick in Kansas City, or move elsewhere. If Hosmer and Moustakas find their way to another club, it’s possible that Cain sticks around and signs a deal to stay home in KC. But lets say that the cards fall by the wayside. Will Cain have to take a paycut?

While I would consider Cain a premiere player, there are reasons why front offices may not feel the same. Cain turns 32 in April, and we all know how center fielders progress into their 30’s (see Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward). The reality is that Cain isn’t likely in this category, just based on his offense alone. In many ways, Cain’s offense has steadied in that “above-average” area (discounting an injury, yet-still-productive 2016) over the past three seasons. He’s established himself as a .300/.360/.440 slash guy, which immediately puts him at an elite level in the traditional sense, and with a wRC+ of 115 last year, and 123 in 2015 (it was 106 in 2016, in 103 games), you can see that he’s going to be a presence offensively, and it’s not strictly based on speed. Sure, there’s always a cliff, but there are usually some pretty clear indicators, and Cain hasn’t shown any of them.

Most impressively though has been Cain’s change in approach at the plate since the 2013 season. In 2013, Cain stopped being a predominantly pull hitter. Throughout his minor league career, and into his first full season in the majors, Cain’s pull percentage was close to 45 percent. Since 2013, it hasn’t been above 37%, coming in at 31% last year. Cain has pointedly begun spreading the ball to all fields, which is a solid sign in an advanced IQ player. In each of those seasons, Cain has hit the ball hard as well, with less than 20 percent soft contact in all but one season (20.2 percent in 2016). Again, you tend to see a degrade in this skill for players that are showing declining skill, but Cain has only gotten better, when healthy.

Cain has always showcased a good glove, and while we could make a case that his skills are diminishing defensively, and will continue to do so, he’s already been a productive right fielder for the Royals, and would slot well in left, should a team need him to. He’s certainly a player that the Indians could use, if his value diminishes based on how late it is in free agency.

What about Cain’s likely contract?

Lorenzo Cain is a valuable player. He’s an above average defender, who has developed several similarities to Michael Brantley offensively. So imagine, if you will, Brantley at $12 million, then ponder what sort of contract that would be if he had speed, was an outstanding defender, and was consistently healthy. While I realize that comparative value based on the time of the contract isn’t a match, it does give us a good starting point for what Cain’s value truly is.

With all of that said, Cain’s contract will likely be less than his agent likely wants, at least in years. It’s hard for me to see any team, outside of Kansas City, giving Cain a four-year deal, for the same reasons that Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana signed three-year deals over the past two seasons. It’s too much of a risk, especially for an outfielder, to give a long-term contract that will end in their mid-30’s. But if you take that $17.5 million as a starting point, and drop the contract to a three-year deal, you are getting into an interesting area for any team in the hunt for a productive outfielder.

If you could interest Cain and his agent Joshua Kushnick into a three-year, $52.5 million deal, you are getting a contract that is somewhat cost controlled, but is certainly a commitment that is much easier to swallow for an Indians’ team that likely looks at their championship window in that same time frame.

Anything over that, unless it is a slight bump, would start to be cost aversive to any team that doesn’t reside in a big market. Let’s be honest though, based on what the Indians have done in this market, the three-year deal for $52.5 million is likely aversive too. I’ll get to that in a minute.

If Cain is willing to sign a three-year deal for anything less than $52.5 million, the Indians should be in play. I would even consider a four-year deal, if you could keep it around $60 million, which would be a stretch. I would still be hesitant at four-years though, unless you could get that fourth year as an option.

So, what about the Indians?

The big question remains whether or not the Indians can afford that type of deal. When you take a couple of factors into account, it’s likely they can’t. First off, the rumors are abound that the Indians offer to Carlos Santana was somewhere south of $13 million. While there could be a variety of reasons why, it’s most likely simply about money. While I could rant and rave about Michael Brantley’s ridiculous option getting picked up, it’s over and done with, but it’s likely because of this deal that the Indians are hog-tied this offseason in any big move that isn’t connected to a trade.

While I believe the Indians could get a greater value in Lorenzo Cain than even Santana, based on position, I just don’t think they’re willing to invest $17+ million to Cain because they think they can address their specific needs closer to the deadline, without much cost, and they’re probably right. Last year, they were able to acquire Joe Smith and Jay Bruce in July and August for a package of interesting prospects, but prospects that likely won’t be much of a major league factor. While that sort of talk will keep the Indians’ social media suite busy for the next few months, it’s the sort of methodology that the Indians have been known for since the days of Mark Shapiro.

While Chris Antonetti has been willing to make a splash, and with Mike Chernoff following in that line of thinking, the Indians reality is that regardless of financial cushion, the Indians have to lean towards cautioun, even with a team this close to a World Series.

Cut Cain would be an interesting edition to this team. Cain, who hit in the second or third slot throughout much of the season, would likely do the same for the Indians, should he sign here. In essence, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Lorenzo Cain would become interchangeable top three hitters, depending on situation. Cain crushes left handed pitching, but is a solid bat against righties too, so gone would be the worries of who hits where, based on handedness. You’d likely slot him in the three slot against lefties, but could move him up in favor of JRam or Lindor against righties. The reality is that all three hitters are just better against lefties, and still good against righties, so it really would depend on the hot hand.

Unfortunately, while it’s fun to discuss a Cain signing, I don’t think it’s likely. I think Antonetti and Chernoff would kick the tires if the money dropped below $50 million a year, and stayed at three years, but so would a lot of other teams, including Kansas City. And if he isn’t going to give his home town club the discount, why come to the Indians?

Of course, there is that World Series thing….

  • Chris

    I’d love the Tribe to sign Cain for every reason you laid out here, but without moving Kip it seems impossible. So here’s a hypothetical: Kipnis, Salazar, and Chang (or another top prospect) to Baltimore for Machado, which saves $3m this year (Machado’s $11.5 minus Kip’s $14.6) and $16.5 next plus whatever Salazar gets in arb or to avoid arb. Is that enough to afford Cain, maybe not, but with Zimmer and Allen not eligible for arbitration until 2020 at least, having Cain as your most expensive outfielder would be tolerable.

  • Steve

    “While I could rant and rave about Michael Brantley’s ridiculous option getting picked up”

    Brantley is projected for 1.9 WAR, or around $15M in value. I get preferring to sign Santana or Cain to him, count me in the group for the former, but this constant rending of the garments and gnashing of the teeth over the Brantley contract has gone way overboard.

  • Steve

    Why would the Orioles want two years of getting expensive Kipnis when they’re going to be tearing things down after trading Machado? Especially considering they already have an all-star at 2B.

  • Chris

    I’d think the Indians would insist upon including him. It’s admittedly a pipedream.

  • Steve

    That’s not a demand the Indians can come close to making. Other teams will gladly give up players that fit the Orioles existing roster, payroll situation, and contending timeline much better than Kipnis.

  • Chris

    Before the end of his next deal, Cain will be a corner outfielder. He averages 12 HR/162 games, same as Brantley and in line with Chiz/Guyer. So I don’t see Zimmer as part of the calculus for signing Cain.

  • Steve

    If Cain can’t play CF to go along with his projected 108 wRC+ this year and whatever lower numbers the next couple, the Indians shouldn’t touch him. Going for defense over offense in the corners if you have a Zimmer is counterproductive.

  • Chris

    Yeah, Chernoff might just get some funny gifs in return to such a suggestion.

  • CBiscuit

    Alternative headline: Cain and Unable

  • mgbode

    Zimmer & Cain & 7 infielders

  • Steve said I gnash my teeth. I feel special.

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  • Steve

    So no response to the meat of my comment, you just want to be upset that I’m critical of the constant whining over the contract?

  • 1. The 1.9 WAR projection, and 120 games, for a guy that is going to start off on the DL, and who’s either finished, begun, or spent most of the past 2 1/4 seasons on the DL is fun, but arguing whether or not he’s brittle or injury prone won’t get us anywhere if we’re not on the same side of that argument. Either way a 1.9 fWAR or bWAR value from any player is good stuff, when you are getting that surplus you are alluding to. I would say that figuring a way to steer that WAR towards a healthy playoff run would be wonderful. As I’ve said while rending my garments, all along, is that I’ll gladly shut my pie hole should he make me shut my pie hole. Until then, I’ll be rending and gnashing. I THINK you and I agree, based on your comment, I’ll just need his on-field performance, followed by what the Indians do to counter-balance an injury IF it happens. Right now, in the vacuum of nothing happening? I’ll gladly stand my ground.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve seen a few different values knocked around for average $ per WAR, and I’d say $15,000,000 may undershoot the surplus in 2018…which doesn’t help me at all on the Brantley side of things.

    2. Your point on Cain is valid, just based on age. There seems to be defensive regression, and I’d certainly err on the side of caution, just based on guys like Fowler and Bourn and the ilk. While there are similar metrics to look at, there are a few reasons why I think he’ll still be an above average outfielder over the next two or three seasons. What I’m not sure about is whether or not Zimmer’s swing mechanics will ever turn him in to the type of outfielder that some speculate may make him a valuable corner outfielder.

    I’d prefer a “big bat,” but under the circumstances, if said big bat isn’t there, and since, while this is gnashing, I don’t think we can necessarily count on those Brantley progressions, I’d gladly take Cain over a three year stretch. Even with diminishing returns over those three years, I think you’d get plenty of surplus over year one and year two of Cain’s contract, to offset year three, if you had to. I think offensively, he’d still mirror much of what Brantley has done, with that defense. If he just maintained 2 WAR per in some form or fashion, you could argue that contract. Obviously, I think if we’re to look at projections, which gives us a starting point, but I’m not a fan of overall, you start at 3.2, surmise a drop to 2ish…and perhaps a drop to 1 WAR after. It could be more…could be less…which is an argument in projections…and one that you won’t get much argument in me.

    My point was simply this. If the Indians can get a three year deal for Cain at or less than 17.5 million, and he maintains his offense over the past four years, and continues to be above average to average in the field, in left or center, you are getting the surplus to make the deal worthwhile.

    Now, could you get a different bat at less money, with more questions? Sure. And honestly, Cain has health concerns too. Last year was his first “complete” season.

    Me? Still all for dealing Zimmer in some form or fashion to the Marlins for Yelich, but I’ve already written that piece…

    Now, to plan my next “WHY BRANTLEY” piece…;)

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  • Steve

    There’s a whole lotta nothin’ in that first paragraph, especially for being on the side making the claim. You’ll complain until complaining is obviously unwarranted. Actually, that sounds pretty typical for a Cleveland fan.

    Brantley was worth more than the $11M we had to spend on him just last year. He’s projected to be worth surplus value this coming year. Even if it is a miss, it’s only a one year deal. Could he not be worth the contract? Of course. Is it “ridiculous” or a “giant risk” that he will ever be serviceable again? Well, he was serviceable and worth it just last year, and the risk won’t affect us at all come 2019, so it seems like the rhetoric can be toned down quite a bit here.

    “I think offensively, he’d still mirror much of what Brantley has done”

    Brantley is projected to be as much better than Cain as Cain is to a league average hitter. They aren’t mirrors.

    My point on Cain was not that I think he won’t be good. I think he will, you don’t have to sell me on him. My only point regarding Cain was that Zimmer doesn’t really fit on this roster if we do sign the former. It’s not the talent level, but that there’s an obvious roster-building issue. Putting two top defenders next to each other makes each a bit less valuable as they make plays the other could have. Putting another great hitter in the lineup gives guys like Lindor, Ramirez, and Encarnacion more at-bats, making each of them a bit more valuable too. Saying “toss Zimmer in a trade for that big bat” works for me, though I think Yelich will cost you Zimmer and Mejia, and they will probably still ask for McKenzie too.

    “and he maintains his offense over the past four years, and continues to be above average to average in the field, ”

    You want me to be pessimistic about Brantley’s future, which makes sense, but then, a moment later, you want me to expect a 32-34 year old to maintain the same level of production he had from 28-31. You can’t have it both ways.