Lorenzo Cain has certainly taken a much different route to fantasy stardom than most. Cain didn’t even play Little League baseball, and it wasn’t until he was cut from his high school basketball team as a freshman that he picked up the sport. No Area Code Game showcases, no Under Armour All-American Game, nothing of the sort. His coach at Madison County (FL) High School, Barney Haynes, said of Cain, “I don’t think he had even seen a baseball game. Much less played in one,” upon seeing his “skinny, gangly, and goofy” project shag flyballs for the first time. After Cain displayed undeniable raw athleticism on the baseball field over the remainder of his high school career, he was plucked by the Brewers with the 496th-overall pick (17th Round) in the 2004 draft. Cain chose to attend nearby Tallahassee Community College (the only college to offer Cain a scholarship) for a season and signed the following April with the Brewers as a draft-and-follow prospect.
The 2005 season marked the start of Cain’s professional career, and he was assigned to Milwaukee’s Rookie-level Arizona League team, where he went on to hit for a .356 AVG in 232 plate appearances, swiping 12 bases along the way and striking out less than 14 percent of the time. He was moved up to the South Atlantic League the following season, where he displayed the same skillset in his first taste of full-season action, hitting .307/.384/.425 and stealing 34 bases in 45 attempts in 132 games. Cain’s numbers understandably dipped the following season (.683 OPS) in the Florida State League, and although he showed strong bat-to-ball skills (.276 AVG) and continued to run (24 steals), he was sent back to the FSL to start the 2008 season.
Cain’s repeat of the Florida State League lasted 80 games, during which he hit for an improved .287/.358/.448 mark and more importantly showed flashes of power for the first time by slugging seven home runs. He was then promoted to Double-A Huntsville of the Southern League. By that point he was in his age-22 season, and he proceeded to carry his newfound power to the new level, hitting four bombs in 40 games (.209 isolated power). Additionally, his improved 11 percent walk rate led to a wRC+ mark of 125 over his 172 plate appearances. Cain ended his season with six games of Triple-A action and hit 11 home runs and stole 25 bases across the three levels, thereby establishing himself as a legitimate offensive prospect.
Cain’s 2009 season was lost due to a hamstring injury followed by a knee injury, and he was reassigned to Huntsville to start the 2010 season, going on to hit .324/.409/.434 and steal 21 bases in 62 games. Cain was then moved up to Triple-A Nashville for 100 plate appearances before getting the call from the big-league club over the second half of the season. After the promotion, he hit for a .306 AVG and stole seven bags in 43 games with the Brewers. Cain showed very little power at Triple-A (zero home runs) and in the majors (one home run), but did keep his strikeout rate under 18 percent at both levels.
Following Cain’s successful major-league debut in 2010, the Brewers shipped him to the Royals as part of the Zack Greinke deal, and his new organization chose to give him some more Pacific Coast League seasoning. In his age-25 season, Cain displayed the power that he had shown flashes of at High-A Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville, putting together his most complete season in the minors. He hit .312/.380/.497 and smacked 16 home runs (.185 ISO) while stealing 16 bags. The power was right in line with his .161 ISO mark at High-A and .209 ISO mark at Double-A in the 2008 season.
Cain looked ready for a full big-league trial in 2012, but injuries (this time to his groin and hip) again marred his campaign. When healthy, he hit seven home runs (.153 ISO) and stole 10 bases in 61 games of action. The 2013 season also saw Cain miss roughly a month due to injury; this time an oblique strain was the culprit and likely contributed to his power decline (four home runs in 442 plate appearances, .098 ISO). Cain got on base at a .310 clip, leading to a wRC+ mark of 80 and a dearth of base-stealing opportunities, netting only 14 swipes in his 115 games played. That didn’t exactly endear him to fantasy owners and led many dynasty league owners to cut bait.
Cain’s successful 2014 regular season and postseason laid the foundation for his breakout 2015 season. His .301 batting average (helped by a .380 BABIP) was good for eighth in the league, and although he only hit five home runs, he added four triples and 29 doubles to go along with a career-best 28 stolen bases, which also ranked eighth in the league. Cain’s postseason exploits on both sides of the ball were well chronicled, peaking in his MVP performance in the ALCS, during which he hit .533 against the Orioles. Cain’s batting average and stolen-base prowess made him the 29th-overall fantasy outfielder in 2014, rewarding patient owners who stuck it out after his down 2013 season in dynasty leagues and those who scooped him up off of the waiver wire in redraft leagues.
What Went Right in 2015
Cain finished this year as the fifth-most-productive outfielder in the game, according to ESPN’s Player Rater. The only four players to finish ahead of him were fantasy beasts A.J. Pollock, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Charlie Blackmon. Ned Yost penciled Cain into the three-hole this season, and he flourished, hitting .307/.361/.477 and playing in more games than he ever had at any level since becoming a professional (140), which in turn led to him getting 102 more plate appearances than he did in 2014. Cain established career bests numbers in virtually every offensive category this season, highlighted by matching his home run output from the previous three seasons combined (16), eclipsing the 100-run plateau for the first time, and seeing his RBI total rise for the fourth consecutive season, checking in at 72. Cain’s runs-scored mark and extra-base hit total also rose for the fourth year in a row. His .171 ISO was his best MLB mark to date, and his strikeout rate of just over 16 percent was his lowest total posted as a professional. He also matched his stolen-base production of 28 from the 2014 season.
Cain’s BABIP dipped from .380 in 2014 to .347 this season, but he offset the loss of luck by making more hard contact at the plate. In addition to raising most of his traditional category outputs for the fourth consecutive year, he has also increased his line-drive rate in each of the last four seasons, coming in at a career-best mark of just over 23 percent this year. His hard-contact rate of just under 32 percent was an improvement of more than 10 percentage points from 2014 and also established a new season high.
What Went Wrong in 2015
Cain posted an on-base percentage of .361 in 2015, but still only drew a walk in 37 of his 604 plate appearances, a rate barely above six percent, which ranked him 97th among 141 qualifiers.
What To Expect in 2016
It probably isn’t a good idea to count on Cain increasing his 2015 home run total of 16 to 20 or more, but he’s making enough hard contact where I wouldn’t expect him to fall back into single digits either. He might experience another BABIP dip from his .347 mark this season, but with his speed and overall bat-to-ball skills, he should be able to keep it well above .300—as he has every year in the majors. If Ned Yost continues to write Cain’s name into the top third of the Royals lineup, he should come close to the 100-runs-scored plateau once again, while hitting close to a .300 average. As he enters his age-30 season, Cain’s 2016 productivity will hinge on his ability to stay on the field to once again receive 500-600 plate appearances. If he does, he should be able to chip in similar counting stats as he did in 2015, and even if the power dips a bit, that package still likely makes him a top-25 outfielder as long as he continues to run.
The Great Beyond
Cain is the very definition of a “late-bloomer” and has firmly established himself as a top-100 asset in dynasty leagues. However, while it may be reasonable to project him for low-double-digit home run totals as he enters his early 30s, projecting him to continue to play 140 or more games in a season as he ages is probably not prudent considering Cain’s lengthy injury history. If you have another owner in your league who feels Cain is a top 10-15 outfield option, it may make sense to spin him if the value is right, as the power has to be there for Cain to finish in the vicinity of a top-five outfield option again.
With Cain’s likelihood to hit for a .280+ average, score runs by the truckload while hitting in the middle of a productive Royals order, and steal 25+ bases over the next few seasons, he should be a solid OF2 or OF3 option for the foreseeable future. The key with Cain will be his ability to stay on the field.
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