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The potential bargain that is Lorenzo Cain

The best option may not be the most obvious one.

Arizona Diamondbacks Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Here at VEB, we continue to investigate different moves the Cardinals could make in the coming offseason. Outside of the bullpen, I’ve seen right-field as the biggest area of concern for team. That’s relatively speaking of course. Most teams would love for their biggest hole to involve Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Jose Martinez battling it out for a starting spot.

If you think the roster needs improvement though, that’s the place to look. So we’ve looked at Giancarlo Stanton, we’ve looked at Justin Upton, and we’ve looked at J.D. Martinez. Outside of the outfield, we’ve also looked at soon-departing Royals Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Eventually, we were going to make our way to Lorenzo Cain.

You could be excused for not really having Cain on your radar. He plays center-field, and the Cards just last year signed a guy for five years that exclusively plays center-field. However, while Fowler seemed to indicate that there was an understanding that he was the center-fielder, John Mozeliak has since sassed back that only money was guaranteed. So at the very least, signing or trading for a center-fielder and moving Fowler to a corner is an option.

You’d want a good reason to do it though. You don’t want to potentially rub a player the wrong way for nothing, even if the position wasn’t formerly or implicitly guaranteed. So why would Cain be a good reason? While Upton and Martinez are getting a lot more attention, he seems like the true best free agent outfielder on the market:

Best free agent outfielder breakdown

Season wRC+ last 3 years WAR/600 last 3 years projected wRC+ projected WAR/600
Season wRC+ last 3 years WAR/600 last 3 years projected wRC+ projected WAR/600
Lorenzo Cain 116 4.7 107 3.6
Justin Upton 120 3.2 120 3.0
J.D. Martinez 147 3.8 131 2.7

Cain doesn’t hit the cover off the ball, but he gets by. A 116 wRC+ would make for a 3 WAR player even if they had average defense and base-running, but that’s obviously not the case with Cain. He’s the sixth best outfield defender over the last three years according to Fangraphs. Among all major leaguers, he’s 19th in base-running value over that time frame. Put it altogether and Cain has been the fourth most valuable outfielder over the last three years. That involves being half a win better than Stanton over that time frame, which is impressive even if he needed 200 extra plate appearances to do so.

The hitting hasn’t always been a plus, but he’s grown over time. He posted career-best marks in both strikeouts and walks in 2017, while displaying slightly more power than usual for his career. His .340 BABIP surely factored in strongly towards posting an above-average hitting line, but that number is actually lower than his career BABIP by four points.

Don’t trust the defensive metrics? Statcast backs ‘em up. Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average leaderboard - based on Statcast’s Expected Catch Probability - ranked Lorenzo Cain 5th with 15 outs above average in 2017. He was 9th in 2016, despite only playing 3/4th of a season.

Fowler on the other hand placed 4th worst in 2017, at 9 runs below average. Only Denard Span, Melky Cabrera, and Matt Kemp were worse this year. We can give him the benefit of the doubt for being hurt this season, as he was 1 out above average in 2016. Still though, an average outfielder on defense at best doesn’t seem to me to be someone who should be unwilling to move from center-field.

Part of Cain’s defensive prowess undeniably comes from his speed. Staying with Statcast, Lorenzo ranks 16th in the league in Sprint Speed, a metric the essentially finds a player’s average top speed. And while we’re on a roll with Statcast metrics, there’s also xwOBA, which replaces the on-contact portion of wOBA with how those batted balls have performed on average in the Statcast era, by Exit Velocity and Launch Angle.

One more Statcast metric: topped batted balls are a quality of contact consisting of grounders with a too low of an Exit Velocity and/or Launch Angle to be considered a “flare or burner”. Of the 5 Statcast-defined qualities of contact, I found that topped batted balls are the only category that is strongly influenced by Sprint Speed. Cain’s 29 ft/sec Sprint Speed implies that you’d expect him to over-perform his xwOBA on topped batted balls by .046 points. Since 27% of his plate appearances ended in a topped batted ball, this implies that should be expected to over-perform his xwOBA by an average of .012 points. That’s a difference of between 3 and 4 runs above average a year, just from legging out infield singles.

That about sums up what makes Lorenzo Cain very good, and legitimately the best free agent outfielder on the market. But what could make him a bargain? The fact that he could very easily get only the third largest contract among outfielders on the market. In MLB Trade Rumor’s latest free agent power rankings, he ranked just 8th in terms of potential earning power, in-between Moustakas and former teammate Wade Davis. Martinez and Upton ranked 2nd and 6th respectively. They see Cain as likely to get a four year deal, maybe five.

I know, Cain is a speed-and-defense guy, and those things don’t age well. However, while it may not seem true intuitively, those types of players actually age better than average. That’s what the data says, with the assumption being that speed-and-defense players are more athletic and condition themselves better, and thus stave off the aging process longer. I’m willing to call it a draw on this front, just to control for one less variable.

So what is Cain worth over four or maybe even five years? Using his projection, an average aging curve, the best estimate of the cost of wins in the future, here’s my best guess:

Lorenzo Cain contract value estimate

Lorenzo Cain 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 Total
Lorenzo Cain 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 Total
Price of WAR $11.10 $11.80 $12.40 $13.20 $14.00 $12.18
Projected WAR 3.6 3.0 2.5 2.2 1.2 12.5
Projected value $39.96 $34.86 $30.57 $29.47 $16.86 $151.7

It’s hard to tell what players ultimately end up getting paid. Even when we think we figured things out, we’re not privy to so much information. However, if someone offered me an over/under at $150M on Cain’s next deal, I’d be betting the under hard. Heck, I’d bet the under on $100M.

Remember, he’s averaged more than 4 12 wins per 600 plate appearances the last three years, so this isn’t a case of a too optimistic projection. Defense just still isn’t paid as well as offensive skills in free agency. In another Trade Rumors article earlier in the year, Jeff Todd thought Cain could score a four year deal with a similar AAV to Fowler, provided his 2015 power came back. His power didn’t return, but he still had a fine season, and Fowler’s AAV over four years comes to a total of $66M. Alex Gordon’s $72M over four years was also presented as a high estimate for Cain’s market.

Even if he’s raised his value to something slightly higher than Fowler - like $90M over five years - the Cards would still be getting a great discount on Cain’s value, and that’s including the very likely possibility that Cain will come with draft compensation. As was the case when we talked about Stanton, Martinez, and Upton, his acquisition would make Piscotty, Grichuk, Harrison Bader, and Magneuris Sierra more expendable. OK, pretty much all of those guys have question marks, but they’re not zero’s, and along with Carson Kelly and a pitching prospect or two, maybe they can be turned into another upgrade.

The difference between Cain and the other options though, is it leaves the Cardinals with a lot more flexibility in terms of money. They’d still have short-term money to fix the bullpen, and they’d still have long-term money to invest in a historically stacked 2018-2019 free agent market.

It might require upsetting a player. That’s not a complete non-concern, but it shouldn’t stand in the way. That’s why the Cards have a “leader of men” in charge of the clubhouse, right? They need to improve this ball club, and they need to do it in the most efficient way possible, so they’ll have the resources to make future clubs better too. More and more, I think that involves being involved in the bidding for Lorenzo Cain.