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….