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what price matt cain?

still out on the road. i have to put on a suit today, which makes it a bad day.

i agree w/ bernie --- the cards’ september fade is more saddening than infuriating. they’ve won only 6 games this month; unless they win at least 4 of the last 6, they will become the first cardinal team since 1932 to win fewer than 10 games in september.

new subject: it has been making the rounds for a while that the giants might be willing to part with matt cain this off-season for the right slugger --- and the cardinals have some sluggers they can consider dealing. cain is a 24-year-old cost-controlled pitcher who’s firmly established as a good big-league starter. he becomes arb-eligible this winter, which means he’s still 3 years away from free agency. what’s a fair price for him?

according to the Day by Day Database, cain ranks 21st in aggregate era from 2006-08 (minimum 500 innings) with a 3.86 mark; his FIPs have been rock-solid steady, ranging between 3.78 and 3.96 each year. cain also ranks 11th in strikeouts per 9 innings and 9th in strikeouts, and opponents have batted .236 against him during that span and slugged just .379. his won-loss record is bad, but so what; without getting too technical about it, he has averaged about 4 wins above replacement for each of the last 3 years ---- a better showing than felix hernandez, ervin santana, jered weaver, chad billingsley, and other pitchers of his age cohort, and just a tick behind scott kazmir and cole hamels. his performance has been roughly equivalent to that of adam wainwright (as a starter); his health record is clean.

now for some caveats. first, cain has benefited greatly from the san francisco ballpark, where his career era is 3.42; on the road his career era is 4.17. (it should be noted, however, that this split has all but vanished the last 2 seasons.) second, he has thrown a large number of innings (about 650) at a very young age, ie in his early 20s. that puts him into a high-risk category for injury and / or early burnout. perhaps related to this, his velocity has been down a bit this year, from an average of 93 mph in 2006-07 to 92 mph this season. but in spite of the slight loss of speed, cain has recorded more swinging strikes this year than in the previous 2.

pitchers like this don’t get dealt very often; there’s not much of a track record. the closest one i can think of off the top o me head is josh beckett, who was 1 year older than cain is now and 1 year closer to free agency when he got dealt after the 2005 season. he fetched two premium prospects, anibal sanchez and hanley ramirez --- the equivalent of rasmus and todd --- plus a bunch of payroll relief (ie mike lowell, who was considered a god-awful waste of dollars at the time of the trade). wonder what the reaction would be if the cards dealt rasmus+todd for cain? the move would be bold, that’s for sure. i think there is a case to be made for it, to wit: the cards would be trading from their two greatest organizational surplusses (outfielders and right-handed mid-rotation starters) to get a commodity the farm system cannot duplicate: an established young pitcher w/ front-of-rotation potential. daryl jones would step into the cf-of-the-future role, mortensen and boggs would still be around to ease the loss of todd . . . . sounds kind of cool on paper, no? but i’m not sure how i would react if the deal actually went down. last winter the mariners made a very similar trade to the one i’m describing here, ie adam jones and others for erik bedard; disastrous trade, one that sets the mariner franchise back several years. for that matter, the mulder deal wasn’t too far off; the cards got him 2 years out from free agency and had to give up their top young pitcher (haren) and top young hitter (daric barton).

the whole exercise is probably academic, because the giants supposedly aren’t looking for potential; they’re looking for an established slugger. prince fielder’s name has been tossed around (he’s arb eligible this year, and unhappy in milwaukee). so let’s get back to where this discussion began: let’s make it ryan ludwick for cain. anyone care to do that? i’d do it in a second, which means the giants probably wouldn’t. on paper, it’s a fairly even trade. ludwick has been about as valuable as cain this year (worth about 5 wins) and is under control for the same number of years (3). the giants would probably argue that cain still hasn’t hit his peak, whereas ludwick exceeded his in 2008 . . . . ok then --- ankiel for cain? i doubt that’d get it done either; ankiel does have 40-homer power, but he can’t stay healthy and is only a year from free agency.

i do wonder, though, if the giants could be enticed by a package of (let’s just say) ludwick and david freese in exchange for cain plus a prospect of some kind. san francisco would potentially gain two everyday players for the next several years, both power bats, while the cards would upgrade their rotation for the next 3 years. they’d find another right fielder within their deep pool of outfield talent, and while freese is definitely a prospect, the cards have the position covered next year nad would still have allen craig and brett wallace as possibilities to take over in 2010.

i have no idea how that idea would be received by the bay, but i’d sure consider making that type of offer if i were the cardinals.