Outfielder Lorenzo Cain last played for the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2010 season, and that winter he was traded to the Kansas City Royals (along with shortstop Alcides Escobar and prospect pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress) for pitcher Zach Greinke and shortstop Yunieski Betancourt. Cain had been with the big league club for 43 games and 153 plate appearances, and had put up a solid rookie slash of .303/.348/.415. His OPS was .763. (His career OPS actually remains at .763.) He went to the Royals with a reputation for very good defense and plenty of speed.
It took a few years for Cain to establish himself as a regular in the Kansas City outfield, but he became a solid contributor to a team that became a regular contender in the American League. His 2015 season was his best, with a .838 OPS, 16 home runs, 34 doubles, and 6 triples. His WAR for 2015 was 7.1, he posted an OPS+ of 125, he was an All-Star and finished third in the league MVP balloting as the Royals won their first World Series since 1985, topping the New York Mets in five games. The Royals had fallen one game short the previous season, losing the World Series in seven games to the Giants.
An injury plagued 2016 season was a disappointment for Cain, although in 103 games he did manage to OPS .747, with a WAR of 2.9 and an OPS+ of 100. Cain bounced back for a good walk year in 2017 before hitting free agency, OPSing .803 with an OPS+ of 112. His WAR of 5.3 would have led the Brewers’ hitters (Travis Shaw, 4.0).
What can we project for Lorenzo Cain as a Brewer in 2018? And for that matter, in 2019 through 2022? His five year deal for $80 mil puts him second only to Ryan Braun on the Milwaukee payroll, so good production will be a must. While Cain did not cost the Brewers any prospect capital, he will cost them a draft pick this season - which will not be as big a hit as last year’s penalty. Milwaukee will be forced to surrender their 3rd round selection with the signing. So the expectation is that the acquisition of Cain will help propel the Brewers into contention for the next several seasons, along with the trade for Christian Yelich and whatever subsequent moves are coming.
Steamer projections on Fangraphs have LoCain with a slash of .288/.348/.438 and a WAR of 3.3. Steamer is generally pretty conservative, and I’ll take that as a floor. “Fans” via Fangraphs offers a similar projection - .293/.358/.429, WAR of 3.9. These are huge upgrades for center field for Milwaukee, although it isn’t clear if Cain will actually be playing center. It could be Yelich. Maybe it could be Brett Phillips. (An outfield of Maverick Phillips, Christian Yelich, and Lorenzo Cain could really help a pitching staff!) Who else will be a member of the Brewers’ outfield this season? That remains to be determined, in this suddenly very, very active offseason for the Brewers.
Cain has accumulated 27.8 WAR so far in his career. It is possible that moving from Kansas City to Miller Park will increase his home run output, just like it could for Yelich. We could see a 35 double, 5 triple, 20 homer, 25 steal outfielder in Cain, with good defense. Cain has consistently positive defensive ratings, with good UZR numbers - his UZR/150 is at 14.5 for his career, for all outfield positions combined.
ZiPS for Cain in Milwaukee. pic.twitter.com/GDJrTvjYvP— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 26, 2018
ZiPS had Lorenzo Cain as the most desirable free agent position player this winter, after J.D. Martinez.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 26, 2018
The Brewers’ additions of Cain and Yelich are not one-season moves. Both will be with the Brewers for five years if things go well. That’s an eternity in baseball. Despite the loss of four prospects to the Marlins, the system is still strong, and several strong pitching prospects still reside in the minors for Milwaukee. The moves so far do not eviscerate the future of the club. This could help the Brewers to contend for many years. There is no guarantee of that...there never is. Heck, I suppose it is even possible that the Astros won’t make the playoffs in 2018.
Mark Attanasio and David Stearns have determined that the Brewers are good enough for these upgrades to give them a good chance to compete not just for the playoffs in 2018 and beyond, but to get deep into the playoffs and bring that elusive championship to Milwaukee. It would seem clear that today’s moves are precursors to at least one more transaction that will clean up the over-abundance of outfielders and shore up the starting rotation.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs