Could the Blue Jays and Giants work out a trade for Matt Cain?


One day after the regular season ended, Blue Jays manager John Farrell spoke openly about desiring a quality starter to eat innings, with infielder Mike McCoy even suggesting the same thing in a radio interview on November 3.

One person who would certainly fit that mold is San Francisco Giants right-hander Matt Cain. The question is, though, do the Jays have enough of what the Giants want to get a deal done?

There are many reasons why the Jays would be interested in acquiring a hurler like Cain, who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since entering the league in 2005.

The first thing that comes to mind with Cain is his consistency. He’s tossed at least 190 innings in each of his six full major league seasons and at least 217 in his last four. The Jays’ 2011 rotation ranked 18th in baseball with 964 2/3 innings pitched, and if you subtract Ricky Romero‘s 225 innings across 32 starts, the remaining Jays starters averaged less than six innings per outing. Cain would solidify any rotation, but being able to rely on him for at least 200 innings in any given season would do wonders for a Jays bullpen that was heavily taxed in 2011.

It’s hard to believe that Cain, having recently turned 27 years old, already has six dominant major league seasons under his belt. Having pitched in two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum‘s shadow since 2007, Cain has quietly strung together dominant campaign after dominant campaign, with his best coming in 2011.

Cain made strides in 2010 by lowering his walk rate and slightly decreasing his hits per nine frames, all while compiling a then-career-best 3.65 FIP in a career-high 223.1 innings. Though he received some consideration for the National League Cy Young Award that year (finishing 12th) the main concern was his home run rate and the fact that AT&T Park helped to somewhat control his 46.6 percent fly ball rate.

In 2011, though, while his conventional stats like a 2.88 ERA and 1.083 WHIP were nice, Cain actually more than halved his home run rate while establishing a new career-high 41.7 ground ball percentage and career-low 38.9 fly ball percentage. There are a few reasons for this, and they imply that Cain will be an even deadlier weapon in the years to come than he has already been.

First, not only did Cain reduce the amount he used his four-seam fastball by almost 10 percent this past season, he worked on throwing it on the outer half of the plate a lot more. The FanGraphs heat map below illustrates Cain’s four-seam fastballs against left-handed hitters in 2011 on the left and 2010 on the right from the catcher’s perspective, meaning the hitter would be on the right. You can see that there’s a lot less of the intense yellow color overall (meaning more pitches thrown in that area) and a significant chunk of it in the 2011 image is eliminated altogether on the inner half of the zone.

With the usage of his four-seamer scaled back, Cain upped the use of his slider and changeup. Using his slider almost exclusively against right-handed hitters and his changeup almost exclusively against lefties, Cain featured a more well-rounded repertoire this past season, regardless of which box the batter was standing in. Though Cain’s numbers against right-handers were still good, his more aggressive approach to lefties in 2011, resulting in a .185/.254/.269 slash line against, is noteworthy.

By continuing to pound the outer half of the plate more often with those off-speed pitches, Cain established a new career-high 33.5 O-Swing%, which measures the percentage of pitches outside the zone that hitters swung at. That’s one of the main reasons for his increased ground ball rate, as he was coaxing more opposing hitters into swinging at bad pitches, resulting in weak contact on the ball. In fact, Cain’s O-Swing% has increased every year that he’s been in the Majors.

Another reason for Cain’s higher ground ball percentage this past season was because he dramatically increased the use of his two-seam fastball, a pitch that he’s seldom used since introducing it to his repertoire.

On the left of the heat map below is an illustration of Cain’s two-seam fastballs versus right-handed batters in 2011 on the left and against left-handed hitters in 2010 on the right. His maps against both lefties and righties were quite similar, so the map versus right-handers was included primarily for greater effect. In this example, the rainbow color palette does a great job of clearly showing the increased use of the pitch with the green and light blue clusters, but also showing how Cain threw the pitch primarily low and away.

With Cain having made all of these adjustments over the course of just one full season, it’s exciting to think about how he’ll improve even further as he continues his career. That being said, though, if he’s sure to be a star for years to come, why on earth would the Giants deal him?

After earning a modest $7.33 million this past season, Cain’s salary more than doubles to $15.33 million in 2012, the final year of the three-year, $27.25 million contract he signed in March 2010. That’s not good news at all to the Giants, who already have roughly $82 million in payroll commitments for next season. That doesn’t include any free agent additions or, more importantly, salaries for their 13 arbitration-eligible players led by Tim Lincecum. MLB Trade Rumors estimates the Giants’ arbitration payments could be around $44 million if everyone returns so, even if the club didn’t sign a single free agent this winter, their 2012 payroll would be in the neighborhood of $125 million. Dealing Cain would give the Giants flexibility to use his $15 million salary to address their offense, perhaps help them bring back free agent Carlos Beltran.

Normally, if a team dealt an ace-caliber pitcher, it would create a gaping hole in their starting rotation. With San Francisco having the luxury of “co-aces” in Lincecum and Cain, not to mention quality starters like Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and even Barry Zito at times, the Giants’ rotation would be able to absorb the loss of Cain quite well, even with the recent trade of Jonathan Sanchez.

Cain becomes a free agent at the end of the 2012 season, so the Giants’ likelihood of dealing him escalates further if the club is leaning against offering him a long-term contract extension in the next few months (though Brian Sabean probably will). Rather than let him walk for nothing at the end of the season (well, with compensation up in the air with the CBA rules changing), the Giants would be able to acquire at least one MLB-ready, No. 5 starter in any return for Cain to round out their rotation.

Which brings us to what the price would be to acquire the Alabama native, given the factors listed above.

When the Rays shipped out Matt Garza to the Cubs last year, they received an impressive haul of five quality players, though Chicago owned three years of control on the right-hander. When the Indians acquired Ubaldo Jimenez this past season, they shipped out a nice package of four players, but control the former Rockies ace until at least the end of 2013. A better trade to compare a Cain acquisition to would be when the Phillies acquired Roy Oswalt at the 2010 trade deadline.

The Phillies shipped out J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose, and Jonathan Villar that year, with the Astros eventually flipping Gose for Brett Wallace as we all know. Happ had finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, while Gose was ranked the Phillies’ sixth-best prospect at the time and Villar 22nd. Happ was a big league No. 3 or 4 starter, Gose was a raw prospect in Hi-A, and Villar was a well-regarded shortstop one level lower than Gose. The Phillies, however, received one-and-a-half seasons of Oswalt, as well as $11 million from the Astros to help offset his $16 million salary the following year.

Since the main motivator for the Giants to move Cain would be to free up cash to spend in other places, it’s likely that the Jays would just foot the entire $15 million bill on Cain next season in any deal. That, combined with the fact the Jays would be guaranteed just one year from Cain, would definitely affect the kind package the Giants would receive from Toronto. Even still, using the Oswalt deal as a rough comparison, the Jays would have to send somewhere in the neighborhood of three solid players in order to pry Cain away from the Bay Area.

Outside of Eric Surkamp, the Giants lack starting pitching depth; an area that the Jays are blessed to be abundant in. Even though the Giants’ most pressing need this offseason is upgrading offensively, they shipped out top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to acquire Beltran a few months ago, so surely a key component of any Cain trade would be one of the Jays’ top pitching prospects. Without mentioning one specific name, guys that would fit that mold would be Deck McGuire, Noah Syndergaard, and Asher Wojciechowski, among many others, with someone like McGuire being a lot closer to the Majors.

While the Giants are almost guaranteed to improve offensively next season with the returns of Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez, along with new addition Melky Cabrera, they could still upgrade at other positions. One clear position would be right field, as the club could certainly upgrade over Nate Schierholtz. The Jays conveniently have an offensive juggernaut in right field in Jose Bautista, but also another option in Eric Thames assuming Bautista is untouchable. With top outfield prospect Gary Brown being a center fielder and the fact they shipped Thomas Neal to Cleveland for Orlando Cabrera in July, though, the Giants could look to acquire another outfield prospect in case they want to give Francisco Peguero more time at Double-A. In that case, someone like a Moises Sierra or Michael Crouse-type could be of interest to San Francisco.

There’s also the outside thinking that the Giants could go after a first baseman — no, not Adam Lind. While it’s virtually guaranteed that top prospect Brandon Belt will assume everyday first base duties after Aubrey Huff‘s contract comes off the books after 2012, the Giants could entertain the thought of a first baseman if Belt continued to play in left field. The Jays, unfortunately, lack any premium first base prospects, but they do have a Major League ready one that had an outstanding Triple-A season in David Cooper, but I’m really just spit-balling here.

Lastly, the final component of any package for Cain would be a legitimate fifth starter that the Giants could plug into their rotation right away next season. Someone on the Jays’ roster like Brett Cecil, Jesse Litsch, or Carlos Villanueva would fit that mold, but their trade values aren’t exactly elite. There’s also the scenario where the Jays work out a contract extension with Cain prior to the trade, similar to when the Mets acquired Johan Santana in January 2008. This would, obviously, alter the package significantly and likely see the Jays include an extra player while upgrading the quality of the other three involved.

I won’t put together an exact package of players for what it could take to acquire Cain, though, since it results in an uproar from either side of the trade, usually without any justification either. I have, however, included some of the Giants’ needs along with certain players that the Jays could include, so have at it in the comments below to put together what you’d think it would take to acquire a pitcher of Cain’s caliber.


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