Much of the Royals offseason and spring training has been spent digging into the changes in the starting rotation or discussing the importance of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas or lamenting the loss of Wil Myers. The focus is on the big names like Hosmer, Moustakas, Myers, James Shields and Jeff Francoeur.
Then there are the battles for open spots. Second base keeps coming up as Johnny Giavotella and Chris Getz do their dance once again, and the backup catcher and last bullpen spots are up for grabs as well. Most projected lineups have the second baseman – whether it be Getz or Giavotella – batting last and the backup catcher and last guy in the bullpen aren’t make or break decisions.
What gets overlooked are the players in the middle. The ones that aren’t absolutely vital but are comfortably established in their role. The expectations aren’t high but they’re expected to still perform well. Aaron Crow is one example, perhaps Luis Mendoza, too. But to me, Lorenzo Cain has gone unheralded during spring training.
What’s come up in discussion is his injury history, and it has to. He’s missed enough time at various levels of professional baseball that it can’t be ignored or dismissed as a concern. But lost in that discussion is the opportunity the Royals have in a strong season from Cain. Consider this: in 2012, despite missing three and a half months, Cain still accumulated 1.9 bWAR and 1.7 fWAR. Both counts placed him sixth among non-pitchers in WAR in only 61 games. You can’t make such a simple projection, but just say you double his counting stats and pretend like he played 122 games and Cain “hits” .266/.316/.419 with 14 homers, 20 stolen bases, and 62 RBI. Not bad.
That sort of line could be his floor over the next few seasons. He hits enough line drives to maintain a decent average, has enough power to hit the ball out, and his speed allows him to cause problems on the basepaths. His swing can get long so he may be more streaky than the Royals would like, and I’d prefer he take a walk more often so his on base percentage wasn’t so dependent on his bat, but there’s room to improve on his baseline. With good health and perhaps a slight adjustment, he may be able to speed up his bat and make more contact.
He’s showing this spring (and the typical spring training disclaimer applies) that he’s at least willing to take a walk. In 61 games last season, he walked 15 times. He’s walked eight times in 17 games this spring. That’s much better, especially since spring is a more free-swinging time. His OppQual from Baseball-Reference is around 9.0, suggesting that he’s facing players closer to the big leagues. On Wednesday, Cain homered, his first of the spring. He has a .474/.565/.684 line in 46 plate appearances. Even with a small sample size, that’s a good stretch of ridiculous production from a center fielder.
Even if Cain’s biggest contribution comes from his defense, a close-to-average season at the plate is going to give him the opportunity to be a valuable part of the team. He has great range and good instincts and a good arm, especially in center. With good health, he’ll be an asset up the middle. If he can develop as a hitter and be even better, he’ll stand out. Cain models his game after Torii Hunter, and Royals television broadcasts have gone so far as to show both batters in a split screen to display the similarities between the two. The Royals may not be able to ask for Hunter’s 2001-2012 average line of .278/.337/.475 and 24 homers from Cain, but that might be his ceiling and Cain will add more stolen bases as well.
That works out to a lot of value for the Royals. Cain is entering his peak years (he turns 27 two weeks into the season) so the time is now for his contribution. He has to stay healthy, but if he does, he could be a 3-4 WAR player at a premium defensive position. He could be enough of an offensive producer to capably fill in in right field should Jeff Francoeur falter and other options aren’t explored. Amid all the prospect follow up and starting rotation breakdowns, there’s Lorenzo Cain right under everyone’s nose.
Already this spring, Cain’s dealt with a hand injury that caused him to miss early games, but he hasn’t had any setbacks or new injuries. Yet. If that continues to be the case, Cain could be a pleasant breakout player in the Royals lineup.