The Milwaukee Brewers entered the offseason with a handful of positions where upgrades would clearly be welcome. Second base, the starting rotation, and relief pitching have been oft-discussed as the biggest needs for our local nine, and most of the rumors that have been floating around this winter have connected the club to players that would help fill those roles for next season.
One area of the roster that is considered a clear strength is the outfield. Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana are entrenched in the outfield corners while Keon Broxton figures to battle with top prospects Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson for playing time in center come spring. Coming into the offseason, the outfield was probably the last place that one would have expect a splashy acquisition to be made. That makes today’s report from Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic all the more intriguing:
The Milwaukee Brewers - deep in young outfielders and center fielders in particular - are not an obvious fit for free-agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain. But the team, according to major league sources, has expressed interest in reuniting with Cain, whom it selected in the 17th round of the 2004 draft, then traded to the Royals as a part of the package for right-hander Zack Greinke in December 2010.
Rosenthal goes on to discuss Milwaukee’s current slate of outfielders and proposes that it’s possible that the club deals one of their in-house options for a controllable starting pitcher. This jives with the recent report from Hank Schulman that the Brewers are still on the ferreting about for possible deals involving Santana or Broxton. Rosenthal notes Milwaukee’s prior unwillingness to deal Brinson for Sonny Gray, though it’s worth noting that around the time of the Winter Meetings GM David Stearns was quoted as saying: “We’ve been pretty consistent that we don’t have untouchables. We’re willing to talk about anyone. That’s always been our philosophy...if some sort of blockbuster deal emerges that we think makes sense, we have to pay attention to it.”
Rosenthal questions whether it would make more sense for Stearns to simply sign a starter - he suggests Arrieta - and keep his current glut of outfielders intact rather than signing Cain and dealing away some of his depth. He also floated the idea that owner Mark Attanasio is interested in making a bigger push following the success of last season, though that’s only Ken’s speculation. Regardless of whether the motivation is coming from ownership or Stearns and his staff, Rosenthal’s sources tell him that Cain “has been a frequent topic of conversation among Brewers people this offseason.”
As mentioned above, Cain is obviously no stranger to the organization. After getting drafted, he rose through the minor league ranks and ultimately debuted with Milwaukee back in 2010. That wound up being Lorenzo’s lone season in the Cream City, as he was dealt to the Royals that winter after batting .306/.348/.415 with a home run and 7 steals in 158 plate appearances with the Brewers. Cain didn’t establish himself as an everyday player in Kansas City until his age-27 season in 2013, but since then has become one the premier outfielders in all of baseball. He’s batted .291/.345/.423 over the last five seasons, posting OPS+ marks of 100 or better in each of the last four years while averaging 10 home runs and 22 steals. He’s posted hard contact rates at 30% or greater in his three most recent campaigns and has a penchant for putting the ball in play, boasting a low 16.8% strikeout rate during that time as well.
While Cain has been undeniably productive with the bat, he’s also long graded out as an elite defender in center. Over the span of his career, he’s logged 5274.0 innings at the number eight spot on the field while accruing 73 Defensive Runs Saved and 66.9 Fielding Runs Above Average. No matter which WAR(P) calculation you prefer, Cain has produced at least 21 wins above replacement during his parts of eight big leagues seasons when taking into account his offensive contributions, defensive prowess, and effective base running (21.5 career BsR). The right-handed hitter ended his Royals tenure on a high note, batting .300/.363/.440 with 15 home runs, 26 steals, and excellent marks in center field for a composite WAR of 5.0 across 645 plate appearances in 2017.
Cain will turn 32 years old shortly after the 2018 season begins, and MLB Trade Rumors predicted he would land a four-year, $70 mil deal in free agency at the beginning of the offseason. The way this free agent period has gone, however, it stands to reason that Cain (and the rest of the top available players) may wind up being forced to settle for smaller contracts than hoped. Front offices seem to have collectively restrained themselves from doling out significant commitments to this year’s free agent class, and now as we are just six weeks from the start of Spring Training eight of MLBTR’s top 10 free agents remain unsigned. If the league as a whole continues to wait out the market, Cain may end up having to accept a two or three-year deal. His free agency also comes with the added burden of a declined Qualifying Offer, which means that Milwaukee would have to forfeit their Competitive Balance Round B pick in the upcoming MLB Draft is they were to ink LoCain.
Any deal that brings Lorenzo Cain to Milwaukee doesn’t figure to stand on its own and would almost assuredly require at least one player that is currently on the roster to get shipped out. There are, of course, the obvious age-related questions, but adding Cain to the mix and then dealing Santana or Brinson in a package for say, Chris Archer, could potentially upgrade the team in a major way for next season and beyond. ZiPS projections attest to how strong Milwaukee’s current depth around the roster is, but also highlights a lack of star-caliber players. Given the expected weakness of next year’s National League, the abundance of payroll available, and the strength of the minor league system, it’s certainly worth debating the merits of making outside additions like Lorenzo Cain and a starter via trade rather than waiting and hoping on the farm to produce the studs this team desperately needs.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus