Lorenzo Cain is one of the more underappreciated outfielders in the game. The longtime Kansas City Royals center fielder is hitting free agency, coming off a year in which he posted a 4.1 WAR in 155 games, with his 32nd birthday still a few months away. Cain could be seeking a four- or five-year contract, possibly in the $80-90 million range.
That’s big money, and only a handful of teams plan to throw around that kind of cash for an outfielder this winter.
Over the last four seasons, Cain has accumulated a 17.9 WAR. Among outfielders in Major League Baseball, only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, and Giancarlo Stanton have done better over the same period. Cain is probably the second-best free-agent outfielder available – trailing only J.D. Martinez and his career-high 45 homers in 2017. Cain isn’t in the same stratosphere as Martinez, but he’s an excellent defender, hits for moderate power, gets on base, and has above-average speed.
The Royals should be interested in bringing Cain back, but the other teams with more money to play with could get in the way. Here are three teams that should be front-runners.
- San Francisco Giants
The Giants have a lot of big contracts on a team that won just 66 games in 2017, so adding another contract for a player outside his prime may not be the best idea. The truth of the matter is that the Giants still have the elements of winning baseball, behind a core of Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Belt, Johnny Cueto, and a handful of promising young players.
San Francisco rolled with Denard Span in center field in 2017, and Father Time has come for Span more quickly than many thought might happen. After averaging a 3.0 WAR per year from ages 28-31, Span has totaled -0.1 WAR in two seasons with the Giants. Maybe that’s a cautionary tale, but realistically Cain has skills that will continue to add value when his speed and defense begin to decline with age.
The Giants probably need to find a taker for at least one contract if they’re going to sign Cain. That might be Mark Melancon, Jeff Samardzija, Span, somebody else, or a combination. Either way, they should be considered a serious threat.
- New York Mets
The Mets were a massive mess this year, to the point where they should’ve been called the New York M.A.S.H. I’m sorry for that joke. Anyway, they had injuries — a lot of them, primarily but not exclusively on the pitching side. Beyond many of the pitching problems and the need for better health to contend in 2018, the Mets also have a hole in the outfield.
When healthy, the Mets have two very good players who are well-suited as corner outfielders: Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto. After that? The combination of Juan Lagares, Brandon Nimmo, Curtis Granderson, Nori Aoki, and others spent way too much time in center for the Mets in 2017, combining for a lot of mediocre play. Signing Cain would give New York one of the better outfield combinations in the game.
Everything is predicated on people being healthy, but a lineup featuring Cain at the top, followed by Cespedes and Conforto, is an improvement from what the Mets were playing with every single day in 2017. Signing Cain can’t be New York’s only move, but it would be a good start.
- Kansas City Royals
Two years ago, Royal left fielder Alex Gordon was coming off a year in which he hit .271/.377/.432 with 13 home runs in 422 plate appearances, totaling 2.8 WAR in 104 games. Gordon hit a huge World Series home run in Game 1 that season, and finished the series with a .391 OBP. He went to free agency at roughly the same age as Cain, and everybody assumed he was a goner.
But the market never fully materialized for Gordon, and he ended up back with the Royals on a five-year deal with a sixth-year buyout. It’s tough to say whether that will happen with Cain, but it’s not out of the question.
The fact that Gordon has posted a .649 OPS in 921 plate appearances since signing that deal may have burned the Royals’ front office to a degree, leaving it questionable whether it would commit major dollars to Cain. If the Royals could only sign one free agent, the much younger Eric Hosmer probably makes more sense. But to not include Kansas City in the top three vying for his services would do a disservice to how the organization feels about Cain.