Over the weekend, Bruce Levine took to the airwaves to discuss, among many other things, his perspective on the Cubs and free agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain. I didn’t catch the report live, but thankfully Evan over at Cubs Insider got a clip, and I think it’s very important to emphasize that Levine did not say the Cubs have made a three-year offer to Cain, as a lot of folks have been circulating.
Instead, Levine said that the Cubs are “definitely attached to and definitely have interest in on a three-year deal.” He went on to say that the Cubs, like a number of other teams, are interested at a relatively low AAV on a deal like that – maybe $13 to $15 million – which I think underscores why I’m drawing the distinction here between what Levine said and the Cubs making an offer. Maybe those two things look effectively the same to you, but what I see, instead, is the Cubs operating with respect to Cain much like they are in the pitching market: they’re simply being opportunistic.
In other words, for those of us confused by the emergence of these Cain rumors, there’s a pretty clear explanation: the Cubs aren’t so much aggressively pursuing Cain as they are simply leaving open the door to a bargain.
It was the only explanation that made sense when these rumors first popped up, and having seen the contours of Levine’s report, I now feel pretty comfortable that that’s what is going on.
Cain, 31, is a high-quality center field bat and glove coming off a 4.1 WAR season with the Royals in 2017. Over the past four years, he’s slashed .300/.352/.437 (114 wRC+), stolen nearly 100 bases, and has been worth 17.9 WAR. There’s no doubt he’s an excellent player, but does he fit with the Cubs? They could certainly use a leadoff man, and adding Cain would further allow the Cubs to use positional trade chips to acquire pitching, but that’s about as far as the fit goes.
In the case against Cain, I’d point out that he’s nearly 32, looking for a multi-year deal, and figures to be quite expensive – various projections have him netting upwards of four to five years, and $68 to $80 million. He’d cost the Cubs their second highest draft pick and $500,000 in IFA money, too. On top of that, he doesn’t walk a ton, as his OBP is supported primarily through his batting average (which also comes on the strength of a consistently high BABIP). If he were to lose a step (in terms of either speed or exit velocity), that BABIP, batting average, and, thus, OBP could come crashing down – which wouldn’t make him an ideal leadoff candidate. My gut says this isn’t happening (not without another, very significant trade), but at this point, given how many free agents might be left scrambling late in the winter, you never know when you might find a steal.
I really think that’s what we’re looking at here, and for that reason, I don’t expect Cain to wind up with the Cubs. There are plenty of teams out there with much more significant needs in their outfield, and it seems one would be wise to make something happen with Cain. If not, well, then sure the Cubs would consider adding Cain if the price didn’t inhibit any other moves in the coming years. As in, a price tag where you’re adding Cain to be “among the options in the outfield”, and not a “oh man, that’s the guy we’re signing to be our leadoff hitter for the next four years.”
To that point, the 2018 ZiPS projections for the Royals came out, which includes their outgoing free agents. Here’s what ZiPS is projecting for Cain: .281/.335/.409, 97 wRC+. His defense makes him a 3.1 WAR player with that line, but it’s far from the very formal “oh man, that’s the guy we’re signing to be our leadoff hitter for the next four years” standard established in the preceding paragraph.
Also: Cain is attached to draft pick compensation, so signing him would cost the Cubs their second highest draft pick and $500,000 in IFA money.
A little more while you’ve got Cain on the brain: Mike Petriello wrote about whether he’s a good bet to age well in his next contract. He does so by finding a pool of similar free agents, and evaluating how they performed in their age 32 season (which Cain will be this year) and beyond. As a group – Garret Anderson, Mike Cameron, Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders, Shane Victorino, Randy Winn – they stayed productive players, by and large, but the decline to me seems pretty evident, as the entirety of the slash line took a hit. That’s what you’d expect to see as a speed guy gets older (fewer balls become hits to support a high BABIP which supports a high average and high OBP, and you lose some extra base hits, too, costing you slugging).
If you’re very into the idea of the Cubs landing Cain, I’d encourage you to read. Cain is an individual, but I don’t see anything in the group analysis that encourages me that he will definitely continue his run of success as a speedy leadoff man with elite defense in center as he turns 32, 33, 34, etc.
So, then, if the Cubs can get a steal on Cain – a possibility, given the way the market has behaved, but far from likely – they’ll add some talent, and figure out how it works with the rest of the roster from there. You could think of Cain like an exceptionally good, very pricey Jon Jay replacement.
If that kind of deal came before the Cubs added another starting pitcher, you’d have to figure it would make them all the more likely to trade positional talent for a controlled starting pitcher, especially because adding Cain *AND* a starting pitcher at $15+ million AAV would leave the Cubs very little in-season wiggle room below the luxury tax cap heading into next offseason.