News recently came out that veteran Lorenzo Cain has been hampered with a minor quad injury, causing him to miss every Spring Training game for the Milwaukee Brewers so far this year. Despite the setback, Cain says he expects to be ready by Opening Day; however, the best thing for the team may be to slowly ease him back and shoot for his 2021 regular season debut to happen a week or two after the first game.
Though manager Craig Counsell said Cain is the starting center fielder, he is also about to turn 35 and wasn’t going to play all 162 contests this season anyway. The worst thing Milwaukee could do is rush him back for the opener before his body is truly ready - whether it’s his currently ailing quad or something else that may creep up over the next few weeks. If the Brewers are going to make the playoffs in 2021, they need Cain healthy in September more than April.
The year off for Cain may have helped him refresh his mind and give his legs another year on the end of his career, it also means he isn’t in the same “baseball shape” as players who have been active this whole time. Plus, he has always played a tough center field, running hard, slamming into walls, and grinding through seasons. Inevitably, with age and wear-and-tear being a factor, Cain needs time to ramp up, and later, to manage his body.
Early-season injuries tend to linger and nag, resulting in poor production over the course of the season instead of just a couple of weeks. The Brewers can place him on the Injured List (IL) right at the start of the season and buy some extra time for Cain and their decision-makers.
There are a couple of other reasons that delaying Cain’s in-game action to start the season makes a lot of sense for the club as a whole. First of all, the team is completely covered to handle Cain’s absence, especially if it’s only for a couple of weeks to start the new campaign.
The signing of Jackie Bradley, Jr. was clearly, in part, a way to protect themselves from a drop off should Cain miss time - whether it’s now, in the middle of the season, or down the stretch. Counsell is normally skilled at juggling the playing time puzzle, but it would actually be beneficial for the squad to have Bradley, Jr. and Avisail Garcia get a lot of action in the early going.
Both of these outfielders are likely to see their time split in a variety of ways; thus, getting as many live at-bats and into the flow of the season right away will better prep them for more part-time work as the marathon rolls through the summer. And with Bradley, Jr. and Garcia in fold right now, there shouldn’t be any offensive dip over Cain. At least, that is plan.
Take Garcia, for instance. At the moment, Garcia is hitting .500 with a 1.533 OPS with a double and 2 home runs through 6 spring games. Yes, it is a small sample. Yes, Spring Training performance doesn’t always translate to the regular season. However, with Garcia’s new look and the way he is swinging the bat right now, it has to excite the Brewers and give them confidence in a bounce back season.
Garcia, like many hitters across the league, struggled mightily to adjust to the 60-game season in 2020. Going into that campaign, Milwaukee’s front office and coaches expected quite a bit from him, including a lot more power (he only hit 2 home runs last season). Seeing some pop back in his bat this spring is reminiscent of Garcia’s 2017-2019 seasons when he had a .473 slugging percentage and .810 OPS. When a guy is swinging a hot stick, the last thing you want to do is sit him too much - especially when the games count.
Meanwhile, Bradley, Jr. clearly has the defensive side of the game down pat. Some may even think he will outperform Cain in center field this season. Whether or not that happens, the Brewers’ defense won’t take a hit with Bradley, Jr. roaming center with Cain recovering. And offensively, if Bradley, Jr. can be anywhere near his 2020 numbers (.364 OBP, .450 SLG, .814 OPS), Milwaukee will be in good shape.
Does anyone really think he will see those levels again? Probably not. But we also know that his left-handed bat plays much better at American Family Field than in Fenway Park. So while the .364 OBP is a bit of a fantasy, one could see him popping a handful of extra dingers to right field and keep the slugging percentage in the mid-.400 range in 2021.
The other major benefit to keeping Cain on the injured list to the start the season is to allow GM David Stearns to hang onto one or two players for a bit longer, instead of exposing them to other teams. With a 26-man active roster this season, the Brewers are likely going to keep at least 13 pitchers - and maybe even 14. That could create quite the crunch among position players.
The two main guys who would probably be on the fence for making the Opening Day roster would be Daniel Vogelbach and Derek Fisher. Neither player has a minor league option left, so if they aren’t with the big league club, they are available to other teams.
If Cain takes one of the roster spots, the Brewers would likely only have room for one of those lefty bats, as it appears Daniel Robertson will serve as a super-utility player covering infield and outfield work. And if Milwaukee kept 14 pitchers, they both would probably be gone. Having one or both of these left-handed sticks off the bench or to start against tough right-handed starters would be a terrific advantage.
Vogelbach captured the hearts of Brewers’ fans last season with his Wisconsin-like girth and his own type of swagger. It also didn’t hurt that he had 4 homers and a .987 OPS in 19 games with the Crew. He’s a hitter who shows a good eye at the plate, evidenced by his 4 walks and 0 strikeouts in spring.
As for Fisher, the former highly-touted prospect hasn’t done much of anything in his career, but the tools and skill set are still present. He’s a solid outfielder who can play center adequately when needed. Fisher has displayed why his bat is so intriguing to the Brewers. In 7 games this spring, Fisher has 2 doubles, a home run, 6 RBI and a .922 OPS. Again, spring stats can be fool’s gold, but you can’t simply ignore what he has done.
Finding a way to keep at least one of their bats on the Opening Day roster would be valuable. Even if it only delays the Brewers’ decision-making a week or two, you never know what could transpire over that time. By slow-playing Cain’s introduction back into the lineup, Milwaukee would have more options and more time at its disposal.
If the Brewers go this route, the toughest part may be convincing Cain this is best for him and the club - which it is. However, he is a proud veteran who has earned his stripes, so it can be a delicate conversation to avoid animosity and a negative impact to Cain’s game.
In the end, Milwaukee would benefit far more from giving Cain extra time to get back into playing shape at the start of the season, allowing him a better chance at long-term health and production throughout the 2021 season and into (hopefully) the playoffs.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference