Blue Jays: Cain is not a good fit in the OF
Despite the fact that his skill set seems like a perfect fit for Toronto, the Blue Jays would be wise to avoid Lorenzo Cain in free agency this offseason.
Now that the offseason is underway for the Blue Jays, it’s pretty much impossible for guys like me to avoid looking ahead to free agency. Truthfully, it’s always one of my favourite times of year in the baseball calendar, as it’s a lot of fun to dream on what your team might do with their roster tinkering, and to think about a fresh start to a new calendar.
For the Blue Jays, that fresh start will be an important thing after a surprisingly rough 2017 season, when they finished with a record of 76-86. They got off to a franchise-worst start in April and never recovered, as injuries and underperformance took their toll on a talented group. The communicated sentiment from the front office is that they believe this group can be better with a few tweaks, which makes this offseason that much more exciting.
We know one thing for a near certainty, that Jose Bautista‘s job in right field will need to be filled. That role could go to Teoscar Hernandez, but it would seem that the front office has their eyes on the free agency market for that role as well, with a hopeful goal of improving team speed and defence. Hernandez accomplishes that task, but he’s also young and inexperienced, something that a contender may not be able to afford in 2018.
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When you survey the potential options, there is one name that has been surfacing a fair amount on social media already, a name that seemingly checks off all the boxes for the Blue Jays’ needs. That would be Kansas City Royals’ outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, who will become a free agent in the very near future.
Cain has spent the majority of his career in centre field, so he would absolutely provide a range upgrade over Jose Bautista. He earned an impressive 5.3 WAR while batting .300/.363/.440 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI, and 28 stolen bases. Over the course of his eight year career with the Royals he’s hit for an average of .290, so while it was an above average season for Cain, it was not far off from what he usually produces.
That’s where the red flags start to come in for the talented outfielder, and why I believe the Blue Jays should stay far away from this potential piece. And before I start picking him apart, let me just say that I think he’s an outstanding ballplayer, I just don’t think he’s a fit for the Blue Jays going forward. Here’s why:
1. He’ll be 32 on Opening Day next season
I can hear you screaming at me through the computer screen, “But so will Josh Donaldson!”. I realize that, and while that’s also a little concerning, their games are completely different. Cain’s greatest value lies within his speed game, and that’s the case on both sides of the diamond. He’s a solid route runner, but his speed has always been his greatest asset on defence, and the same goes for with the bat. It takes more than a pair of wheels to hit .300, but remember that he also swiped 28 bases to add to that value.
I do believe that he can keep that up into 2018 and maybe a little longer, but counting on a “speed guy” as he approaches his mid-thirties is dangerous territory, especially when you’re talking the kind of dollars that Cain will be looking at.
2. He’ll be expensive
Players that earn 5.3 WAR don’t go for a cheap rate, and Cain’s agent will be licking his chops after the season his client just put on in a contract year. Teams seem to be getting a little smarter about how they spend their money on veterans these days, but it only takes one to tango, and he should be due for a solid raise from the 11 million he earned in 2017.
If we’re looking for a comp from last season, Dexter Fowler might actually be the best choice. Fowler signed with the Cardinals for five years and 82 million dollars, and he’s a centre fielder with a similar skill set. Remarkably, they are only 22 days apart in age as well, so it’s a decent comparison.
Cain has had a slightly more accomplished career individually than Fowler, and it’s also a year later, so that will likely result in a bigger ask. Don’t be surprised if they’re looking for five years and 100 million, and depending on which teams end up in the market, he could get close.
Which is why the Blue Jays should look at other options that make more fiscal sense.
3. They’re not one player away
While I do believe the team is closer than many others think they are, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s going to take more than one player acquisition to make the difference in 2018. It’s going to take health first and foremost, but it’s also going to take another starting pitcher, a back-up catcher, some bullpen help from the left side, and a utility infielder at a minimum, so throwing around 20 million a year at Cain doesn’t make much sense.
Now that we’re at the latter stages of Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki‘s contracts, there are plenty of folks that aren’t thrilled about having them on the books at the moment. With Cain, it would be the same type of situation, and maybe as soon as a couple years from now. Sound like something you wanna sign up for again in a couple years time?
4. He’s a good, but not great fit
Improved defence? Check. On base ability? Check. Speed? For now, check. So what’s the problem then?
For me, it’s mostly about the future of his role with the team, and where they’ll need to spend that payroll in a few years time (Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, etc). Other than maybe hitting left-handed instead of being a righty, and maybe being more of a leadoff type, Cain is a very good fit for the 2018 season. After that, I’m not so sure.
He’s never been one to hit at the top of the lineup much, as he frequented the 2nd and 3rd spots in the lineup for the Royals the most this season. He could hit at the top of the lineup I suppose, but that’s not his ideal position, and the Blue Jays already have guys like Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak for those roles now, and others like Bo Bichette and Vlad Jr in the minor league pipeline for later. Do you want to pay a 5th or 6th hitter that kind of money (I know we are now, but that’s more to my point than against it).
And while his range as a corner outfielder will be a big improvement, he’s not a gun-slinger by any means with his throwing arm. He’s serviceable to be sure, but as his speed deteriorates over the life of his contract, it’s a little scary to think about where his defence could end up. He’ll have to maintain his on-base ability as he ages, and that’s a lot to ask if you’re making around 20 million as an AAV.
Next: Early predictions about the Blue Jays upcoming offseason
So while I agree with many of you that he’s an intriguing option to keep in mind, I don’t know that he’s the target I would pursue if it were up to me, or someone that I realistically see the Blue Jays pursuing. I’ve been wrong many times before though, so we’ll see what happens, That’s the fun of the offseason.