Just so we’re clear, this is not happening. There haven’t been any real rumors linking the A’s to Cain, nor really to spending money, and the idea of Lorenzo Cain, Oakland Athletic, is mere fantasy.
In which we shall indulge.
The A’s current centerfielder is Dustin Fowler. You probably know a fair amount about him by now, most notably that he’s coming off a fairly gruesome leg injury that I still refuse to watch. The A’s front office seems confident that Fowler will be ready to go by Opening Day, and we have every reason to believe them. Modern medicine is pretty neat!
Even before the leg injury though, many analysts and scouts projected Fowler as best suited for a corner spot. His defense is probably fine in center especially in his younger years, but it’s not ideal. At a corner he’s probably above average defensively, in center slightly below.
As the A’s start to near contention, their goal will be to fill roles with players who can excel rather than players who are capable of playing, i.e. Mark Canha, centerfielder. While Fowler is capable of playing center and probably a fair bet, the A’s goal should be to put him in his ideal role. That’s especially true when considering his injury.
With that injury, the A’s need to consider Fowler’s ideal timeline. If Fowler is slated to start in center on Opening Day and is frankly the A’s only real option out there, his timeline is truncated. There really aren’t options outside of him starting game one (I’m considering Boog Powell a 4th outfielder), and the pressure is on to perform right away. Should things not go exactly according to plan in Spring, the A’s might end up with a rushed Fowler. While a playoff berth is the goal in 2017, the A’s still need to consider development first and foremost. There should be a contingency plan for Fowler.
In effect, Lorenzo Cain is a contingency plan, pushing Fowler to his more natural position for an extended period of time. Signing Cain would allow the A’s to delay Fowler’s return if at all needed and is an all around helpful step in his development.
Behind Fowler, the A’s next centerfield prospect is....Austin Beck? There are some enticing guys in the mix like B.J. Boyd or Skye Bolt who have tools, but are far from top prospects. Unless Boyd or Bolt surprises or Austin Beck pulls a Mike Trout and flies through the minors, the A’s have a hole in centerfield.
Cain plugs that holy nicely to buy the A’s some time, either for Beck to develop or the A’s to find their next center fielder. It gives Dustin Fowler the time to ease back into the sport following his injury, and allows him to play in a corner spot. The A’s could definitely use a bonafide centerfielder.
Free agents are risks. All decline at one point or another, and often that decline happens during their biggest contract. This will likely be Cain’s biggest and therefore most risky contract.
Is there reason to think Lorenzo Cain is different?
Maybe! Mike Petriello of MLB.com looked at comparable players, and there are certainly speedy players who have endured past their early thirties. Cain is far from a one trick pony, and if his speed abandons him (which isn’t likely) he still has other skills that could prop him up as a valuable player.
More likely though, Cain will remain an above average fielder for at least a few more years. That in and of itself should make him a fine everyday player, a particularly good fit between Stephen Piscotty and Dustin Fowler in a strong defensive outfielder. His bat will slip some but after one of his better seasons in 2017, he’s got room to slide while remaining a very good player.
We can’t talk about the A’s and a big name free agent without acknowledging what is happening around the league as Spring Training nears. Players are going unsigned in a possible attempt to drive down prices, and the previously unaffordable for the A’s might fall into the A’s range.
It’s not completely clear how the collusion-y lack of free agent signings will work out. At some point, someone will blink. There are too many good players looking and too many obvious fits for the best free agents for there not to be competition that will ultimately lead to a hefty free agent contract.
Still, there’s a chance for the A’s to maybe swoop in and see if they can’t find a way to snag Cain in a way that capitalizes on the currently slow market. Most outlets have Cain going somewhere around the 4 year, $70 million range. Perhaps the A’s can frontload the deal some, taking more of Cain’s money from the 2019 payroll which as of now is lacking in obligations. Maybe they can offer him a longer deal with a lower AAV, taking a risk now and paying for it later on. Maybe the A’s can interest Cain by offering him a deal more in line with the market rate we’ve seen in years past, showing him a good faith effort that’s been lacking this offseason.
Lorenzo Cain is fun
In a game that increasingly dominated by strikeouts and home runs, speed is even more rare and therefore even more exciting. Lorenzo Cain is one of the most exciting players to watch.
Have some moving pictures.
When the competition has zigged, the A’s have always zagged. Operating on a low payroll means doing something out of the ordinary to succeed. At this very moment, the ordinary is staying out of the free agent pool in order to push prices down and avoid risks.
Zagging would be taking the risk other teams are unwilling to take, putting a hefty sum of money into a guy who a year or two back might have targeted nine figures. His price tag, at least in theory, should drop a level, giving the A’s a shot at a top tier free agent.
Cain turns the A’s into a defensively strong team with a bonafide top notch outfield. In a sport that’s seeing fewer groundballs in favor of hitters swinging up to hit the ball in the air, the A’s will be prepared to flag down just about as many flyballs as any team in the game. Effective and about as aesthetically pleasing as you may find.
Cain is also an offensive threat and while an outfield with Cain might not be far superior offensively to one without, it’s still better. He’s an all around player and he fits the A’s like a glove.
(It’s not going to happen.)