Lorenzo Cain, after seven seasons with the Kansas City Royals, is hitting free agency at age-32. He's a center fielder by trade, one that can hit, run, and field. Yet as an older player that mans a position the Yankees are not hurting for, he would profile as an odd offseason target.
It's true Cain would be difficult to fit into the Yankees' plans, given the shape of their roster. However, that could be said of nearly every free agent on the market. The Yankees have cogent starters penciled in at every position, a nearly full rotation that would be up to the brim should they re-sign CC Sabathia, a loaded bullpen, as well as premium hitting and pitching prospects. There's not a player the Yankees could add that wouldn't contribute to some sort of logjam.
If the Yankees do add to a crowded roster, then, they would do well to focus on either top-end players, or players that represent great value. Pursuing Cain could check both of those boxes.
Cain is coming off a strong season. He hit .300/.363/.440 with 15 homers, stealing 26 bases while being caught just twice. His power isn't great, as his .140 isolated slugging last year was below league-average and not much better than his career mark of .131, but his speed and contact skills make him a quality offensive player.
That Cain can provide on offense while being an excellent defender is what makes him a special player. He rated as five runs better than average in center field per DRS, a good figure, but one that represented a decline, as his average over the previous three years was +18. That could be a concern, as a slip on defense could have a significant impact on Cain's overall value.
However, a closer look reveals that Cain may not be declining precipitously, and that his lackluster (for him) DRS numbers may be due primarily to the wonkiness of defensive statistics. Per Statcast, Cain ranked fifth in baseball in outs above average. His average top speed was a blazing 29.1 ft/s, 16th-fastest in the league, and actually a bit faster than his average in 2016. Judging by his speed and the quality of the batted balls that Cain managed to catch in the field, it appears as though he is not in decline and is still an elite fielder.
Add it all up, and Cain rated as a five-win player per rWAR in 2017. Over the past four seasons, he has averaged 5.1 rWAR, and has averaged nearly 7 WAR per 162 games. He has genuinely been a star-caliber player.
Yet there's a disparity between what Cain seems to be capable of and what he's expected to fetch. FanGraphs' crowd-sourced free agent projections pegged Cain for four years and $68 million. MLB Trade Rumors forecasted four years and $70 million. When ESPN's Jerry Crasnick surveyed MLB executives about which ex-Royal was to be the best value on their next contract, they overwhelming sided with Eric Hosmer, not Cain.
Cain has the pedigree of one of the game's best center fielders, but is expected to earn about as much on the open market as players like Ian Kennedy, Mike Leake, or Mark Melancon recently fetched. Cain's track record suggests he's simply of another caliber than the players he is being lumped with salary-wise.
Precisely why there's a gap between what Cain can do and what he's projected to earn on the market is a topic for another day. Regardless of the reason Cain may wind up underpaid. If the Yankees want to upgrade their team with impact talent at a discount, he might just be the best option.
An outfield with Cain in center, flanked by Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner, might just be the best outfield in baseball that doesn't include Mike Trout. Each profiles as plus on defense, while providing anywhere from solid to MVP-type offense. A strong-OBP player like Cain, to go with another such player in Gardner at the top of the lineup, would provide ample baserunners to score on Judge and Gary Sanchez dingers.
The issues, of course, arise with regard to roster-crunch. Adding Cain would limit at-bats for Aaron Hicks, relegate the expensive Jacoby Ellsbury even further down the depth chart, and make Clint Frazier a possible trade chip. The Yankees already have five players that could reasonably warrant playing time in the outfield, and they may not want to contribute even more to that logjam, no matter the value that someone like Cain could bring.
Still, if the market is as lukewarm as it’s projected to be, it would be smart for the Yankees to at least kick the tires on Cain. Their glut of outfielders makes this a highly unlikely signing, but given the circumstances, it’s one that should at the very least be explored.