- Lorenzo Cain is one of the game's most dependable outfielders and a consistent hitter. So what will he receive in free agency? Probably not as much as he should get.
Eric Hosmer is the player most indelibly linked to the Royals' surprise 2014 AL pennant and 2015 championship, but Lorenzo Cain may have done more to help those teams achieve glory. Taking advantage of his outstanding speed and athleticism, the fleet-footed centerfielder coupled above-average offense with elite defense during the Royals’ pennant runs, and he's more or less continued to do so in the two seasons since. Now a free agent, the going-on-32-year-old centerfielder ranked fifth in The Reiter 50, but as with Hosmer and 15 of the other top 20 from among that group, he remains unsigned at this writing.
To date, several teams have shown interest in Cain, with the Rangers, Blue Jays and Brewers doing so most recently and the Giants and Mets checking in earlier this winter. No dollar figures have been tossed around, at least publicly, but we can get an idea of the range of possibilities via my What's He Really Worth system, a model that incorporates a player's last three years of performance, a projection of his future value, and estimates of the market cost for a win, the rate of inflation and an age-related decline.
Though he's played in the majors for parts of eight seasons, it's fair to call Cain a late bloomer. Drafted out of a Florida high school by the Brewers in 2004, he was slowed by a strain of his posterior collateral ligament in 2009 and didn’t make his major league debut until 2010, when he was 24 years old. Traded to the Royals as part of the Zack Greinke blockbuster in December 2010, he played just 67 major league games over the next two seasons due to the unexpected hot play of Melky Cabrera (2011) and further lower-body injuries (2011–12). He led all MLB outfielders with 24 Defensive Runs Saved, but hit for just an 80 OPS+ in 2013 (.251/301/.348)—his age-27 season—and looked like a bottom-of-the-lineup type who could be useful, but hardly a championship-caliber player.
Cain made dramatic improvements at the plate in 2014 (109 OPS+) and again in '15 (125 OPS+), becoming less pull happy but generating more hard contact and swiping 28 bases in each season. In 2015, he set career highs with 140 games, 16 homers—as many as he'd managed in the previous three seasons—and 7.2 WAR (Baseball-Reference version), the league's fourth-highest total. That same year, he made his lone All-Star team, dashed home with the pennant-winning run in the ALCS against the Blue Jays (he'd won ALCS MVP honors the year before) and helped the Royals to their first championship in 30 years.
Unfortunately, a left hamstring strain and a left wrist sprain each cost Cain about a month of the 2016 season. He played in just 103 games overall, and just 30 after June 28, shifting to rightfield—a position where he'd split time for most of his Kansas City career, generally with Jarrod Dyson coming off the bench late to take over center—due to the hamstring injury. Even with just a league average offensive contribution (100 OPS+), he produced a respectable 2.9 WAR thanks to his outstanding defense (+11 DRS).. Fully healthy, he rebounded in 2017, setting new career highs with 155 games, 175 hits and 54 walks and providing his typical blend of speed (26 steals in 28 attempts) and modest power (15 homers). He hit .300/.363/.440 for a 112 OPS+, nearly identical to the .300/.347/.436/113 OPS+ he'd hit in the previous three seasons combined.
Defensively, the good news is that Cain proved durable enough to play 151 games in centerfield. The bad news is that his +5 DRS was his lowest total since 2012, marking him merely as a good fielder instead of a great one; his +2 UZR is in the same ballpark. Interestingly enough, he did rank fifth among all outfielders in Statcast's newfangled Outs Above Average, which accounts for the probability of an outfielder making a play by taking into account the distance and direction he has to travel and the time to get there, all based on the direction, launch angle and exit velocity each batted ball. Cain's 15 Outs Above Average trailed only Byron Buxton, Ender Inciarte, Mookie Betts and Adam Engel. Meanwhile, Statcast's assessment of Cain’s sprint speed (top four percentile) jibes with his +8 baserunning runs, which ranked third in the majors behind only Buxton and Betts (both +9). All of which suggests that his legs (and baserunning smarts) are still in excellent shape going forward, an important consideration given that facet’s centrality to his value.
Cain’s 5.3 WAR in 2017 was good for 10th in the league, and even given his 2016 absences, his 15.4 WAR over the past three seasons is tied for 16th in the majors, fifth among all outfielders. Again, he's made just one All-Star team and hasn't won a Gold Glove, though he did win three straight (2012–14) spots on Wilson's Defensive Players of the Year teams. Based on the metrics, one can't begrudge the hardware of the Rays' two-time Gold Glove winner, Kevin Kiermaier (2015–16), but it's rather galling that Cain went home empty-handed in 2013–14 while outdoing the Orioles' Adam Jones in both DRS (+45 to 0) and UZR (+38 to +2) by wide margins. Even with a minimum of accolades, he's easily the best centerfielder in a free agent market where the alternatives (Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Austin Jackson, Jon Jay, Cameron Maybin) profile as part-time players or incomplete solutions.
Unlike Hosmer and J.D. Martinez, Cain doesn’t have agent Scott Boras bandying about $200 million contract demands, but via the WHRW, he’s got a better case for being paid big bucks (if not that stratospheric figure). In estimating Cain's value going forward, the WHRW model uses Tom Tango's Marcel the Monkey forecasting system ("the most basic forecasting system you can have, that uses as little intelligence as possible") to establish a baseline based upon a 6/3/1 weighting of WAR; that is, six times his 2017 WAR plus three times his 2016 WAR plus his 2015 WAR, divided by 10. Tango's model also includes regression and an aging curve, specifically:
• 20% regression in the first year (0.8 times that weighted WAR)
• A baseline loss of 0.4 WAR per year thereafter, adjusted for age: gaining 0.1 WAR for each year under 30 and losing 0.1 per year over 30 (so -0.2 for Cain's age-32 season).
For the cost of a win this winter's series, I've extrapolated from the results of two studies of last winter's market, a low-end estimate of $9 million per win for 2017 based upon Ben Markham's study of 101 free agent deals from last winter, and a high-end estimate of $10.5 million via Matt Swartz’s longer-range study. I'm applying the latter's 5.9% estimate for annual inflation to both. All of these figures represent a jump from last winter's series; despite the slow pace of free agent signings this winter, the industry is awash in cash, having set a revenue record for the 15th year in a row despite an attendance dip. What's more, each team is about to reap a $50 million windfall from the sale of a majority stake in MLB Advanced Media (now BAMTech) to the Disney Corporation.
While no reports of actual offers to Cain have been made public, it's safe to assume he'll be getting ones in the three-to-five year range given his age (all dollar figures in millions).
Five years and $102.9 million does seem to be a big jump beyond the five years and $82.5 million Dexter Fowler received from the Cardinals last winter for his age-31 to 35 seasons, but then Cain has been far more valuable than Fowler thanks largely to his defense. Fowler's -31 DRS from 2014–16—nearly the inverse of Cain’s +34 DRS from 2015–17—limited his WAR to 8.2 in that span, and he had considerably less value on the bases than Cain as well.
At the $10.5 million per win figure, Cain's five-year forecast produces a valuation of $120 million; at $24 million per year, that would be the sixth-highest average annual value of any outfielder's contract, fitting in between Mike Trout ($24.083 million and Jason Heyward ($23 million). Again, timing is everything, including the fact that Trout's AAV includes salaries from his three years of arbitration eligibility. It’s hardly a guarantee that Cain’s deal will go that high, but it could.
Unlike the cases of Hosmer and Martinez, where charitable assumptions regarding shaky defensive metrics, injuries and intangibles are necessary to justify valuations that still don't match Boras’ asking price, Cain's case seems fairly straightforward. His age, injury history, likelihood of regression—all of those are incorporated into the model to some extent, and none of that needs to be waved off to justify a nine-figure deal.
That said, one thing that shouldn't be taken for granted is the possibility that Cain is moved out of centerfield, either because of the presence of a superior gloveman (the Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar, for example) or the desire to keep Cain healthy as he ages. The positional adjustments in Baseball-Reference's version of WAR are such that a full season in righfield is about 9.5 runs less valuable than one in center; currently, a centerfielder is valued at +2.5 runs per 1,350 innings (about 150 games) while a rightfielder is valued at -7 runs. Translated from stathead to English, the defensive demands of centerfielder are such that teams can sacrifice a bit of offense, playing a below average hitter there. It’s much easier to find a player who’s a good enough hitter and competent fielder to play rightifeld.
On a prorated basis, Cain's DRS in rightfield (+33 per 1,350 innings), has actually been higher than in center (+20 per 1,350 innings), but he has just 977 1/3 innings under his belt there, which amounts to about two-thirds of a season. If we apply a bit of regression, assuming he'd be "only" +24 over a full complement of innings, we can tweak the above projection by docking him an extra 0.45 wins per year—a gain of four runs relative to the average fielder at each position, coupled with the 9.5 run loss in value for the position shift—at some point. Referring to the valuations in the table above, let’s suppose that the shift kicks in for 2021 (0.8 WAR, instead of 1.2) and '22 -0.3 WAR instead of 0.2). Via the revised numbers, Cain would produce 9.1 WAR over the life of a five-year deal, worth $92.4 million in the low estimate and $107.8 million in the high one. That’s still more than the first-cut five-year valuation for Martinez ($84.4 million) as well as last year’s contract for Fowler.
Chances are that a team moving him before that isn’t thinking in terms of five years; at the low end, a four-year deal with a move to rightfield for 2020 yields 8.5 WAR and a valuation of $85.3 million, while at the high end, the valuation would be back up to $99.5 million.
Given the number of teams who’ve expressed interest in the multitalented Cain, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him bring home a five-year deal. I think he’ll do more to live up to whatever contract he lands than either Hosmer or Martinez.