September 23, 2011
Sneaky Speed Play
When the Brewers traded for Zack Greinke last season, most figured the Royals would be eager to play Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Lorenzo Cain as they entered yet another phase of the rebuilding process. Many viewed Cain, in particular, as a sleeper who could put up some decent fantasy numbers. After all, Cain had a nice run of 158 plate appearances for the Brewers in 2010 in which his slash line was .306/.348/.415, stealing seven bases in eight attempts for a very conservative manager in terms of the running game. The change in scenery would bring him under Ned Yost, who was talking crazy talk in the off-season saying that Billy Butler was going to steal ten bases this season. After all, the only player that currently on the roster to compete with Cain for the centerfield spot was Melky Cabrera, who was the butt of a lot of jokes told by fantasy players rather than someone anyone targeted.
Here we are nine months later, and if Cabrera can manage to hit two more home runs in these final games, he will be one of just twelve players this season to have at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. The miraculous season by Cabrera made believers out of the Royals, who did not trade him at the trade deadline and will apparently offer him arbitration to remain the team’s starting center fielder next season with Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoer in the corners. That means that if Lorenzo Cain remains in the Royals’ organization for 2012, his best opportunity will be as a fourth outfielder. That is also assuming that Jarrod Dyson is not the favorite for that role already.
Cain being relegated to a fourth outfielder status without even getting a chance at the job at the major league level seems odd considering his growth as a player. In parts of three seasons in Triple-A both within the Milwaukee and Kansas City organizations, Cain has a .305/.377/.476 slash line in 671 plate appearances. Last season, he walked in 11 percent of his plate appearances while striking out in 17 percent, and this season those rates were seven and 19 percent respectively. Most of that is right in line with what Cain did in his time with Milwaukee last season, but the Royals waited until the Omaha Stormchasers’ season was over (including its run to the Triple-A championship game) to promote him for the final days of the season. Given the fact that they’ve aggressively promoted everyone else this season, it seems clear that the Royals’ plans for Cain in 2012 do not seem that big or else they would have called him up earlier to see what he could do against American League pitching.
Cain was a sleeper pick in a lot of leagues this season because people assumed Cabrera was just around to hold off Cain until the Super Two deadline passed, at which time Cain would come up and steal 15-20 bases. Unfortunately, Cain, like his former Omaha teammate Kila Ka’aihue, were wasted draft dollars that fantasy owners paid for potential and not production. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I will try to acquire Cain again in 2012, especially if he is traded this off-season to a better situation. He turns 26 just after the start of opening day, and his growth throughout his slow climb through the minor leagues is enough for me to try again next season on an end-game claim.
The bump in Isolated Power is helped by spending time in the Pacific Coast League, but his walk rate has remained strong throughout his career, and his strikeout rate has been consistent. His stats also include 51 steals across AA and AAA in his last 64 attempts.
Cain also only hits from the right side, unlike a lot of speedy types that hit lefty or at least attempt to switch-hit to take advantage of their speed down the first base line. Here are Cain’s splits over the past few seasons:
Cain sees lefties rather well and makes better contact against them than he does right-handed pitchers, as his walk to strikeout rate drops dramatically in that split. Interestingly enough, the Brewers did not give Cain much of a chance against lefties in his time with the organization, but Kansas City left him in to hit lefties all season, and he responded rather well. To be fair, Cain was dealing with injuries for most of 2009, which really hurt his overall numbers.
Cain is one to watch in the off-season to see what the Royals end up doing with him. He has already played 156 games in Triple-A and has posted back-to-back successful seasons there, leaving little for him to prove to earn a promotion. Only Melky Cabrera’s deal with the devil got in the way of what everyone assumed would be an easy roster move in June and now has made for a crowded situation in the Kansas City outfield. He seems like just the type of player that would flourish offensively in Kauffman Stadium, but he may never see more than a handful of at-bats this season while coming to camp in 2012 fighting for a reserve role.
The free agent market for center fielders is not very deep, so I expect to see teams looking at trade opportunities. If the Rays put B.J. Upton on the market at the winter meetings, he will be the costly option for a new team to pursue as he is heading into the final year before free agency and will have a heftier price tag due to arbitration. If I am a small-market team looking for help in center field (hello, Houston), rather than trying to find the next Melky Cabrera, I am asking the Royals what they want for Cain. If Cain gets the chance to be a starting outfielder next season, he becomes an interesting play in AL-only leagues and a solid reserve speculation in deeper mixed leagues.