Once upon a time, Kansas City Royals centerfielder Lorenzo Cain was just one piece in a trade for Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. From there, it took a couple years, but Cain blossomed into one of the best players in the game today. Ironically, now Greinke would likely not be enough on his own to fetch Cain in a hypothetical deal.
Cain came over to the Royals from the Milwaukee Brewers, who drafted him in the 17th round of the 2004 amateur draft. Not much was thought of Cain at the time, obviously. No one banks on the production of a 17th-round pick. It then took him six years before he even made his Major League debut. That happened in 2010, at the age of 24. That’s not an abnormal growth rate for a high-school pick, but Cain wasn’t lighting the world on fire.
After having a rather impressive first showing in the Majors in limited at-bats, he was then added to the Greinke deal, along with Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. Ironically, Jeffress made his way back to Milwaukee in the subsequent seasons, while Odorizzi became the second piece out of town in the James Shields deal two years later. Escobar has stuck around, as has Cain, but only the latter has become a star.
There were glimpses during that rookie season. It had been six years in the making. Cain stole seven bags in eight attempts. He played solid centerfield defense. He tallied 13 extra-base hits in 147 at-bats. Once moving over to Kansas City, there was a bit of a restart or learning curve. He didn’t become something approaching a full-time player until 2013, but it didn’t take long from there for him to hit his stride.
In 2013, Cain was a 3-win player. By 2014, he had become a 5-win player. And in 2015, Cain made the All-Star team, received MVP votes and was a 7-win player, reaching the upper echelon of the American League. He even won defensive player for the month for his July with the Royals. It was standard growth for someone expected to reach these heights. It was certainly not standard for a former 17th-round pick who didn’t receive regular playing time until he was 27 years old.
Yet Cain’s skillset fits perfectly in the league today, so it is no wonder he has taken off. He is an excellent center fielder, helping to anchor perhaps the best outfield defense in baseball. According to Fangraphs, only six players in all of baseball have Ultimate Zone Ratings of 10 or higher this season. Cain is one of them and has easily eclipsed that threshold every season for four straight seasons now. In the past four years (including 2016) Cain is the fourth-best fielder in MLB regardless of position according to UZR.
He is also an asset on the base paths. Before an injury-plagued 2016, Cain had stolen 56 bases the past two seasons while being caught just 11 times. Baserunning and defense are often overlooked skills in the game because of the immediate impact hitting has on scoring runs and winning games, but Cain proves his worth in each area and is a tremendous hitter to boot.
Cain needs to improve his walk rate and he’s not an overly powerful hitter outside of his 2015 season, but he does everything else well. It’s still too early to tell if 2015 was a next step and not an aberration. After all, 2016 has been stunted by injuries. We can’t rule out that a healthy Cain will slug between .450 and .500 while striking out fewer than 100 times every season. If that is the case, the rest of the AL needs to watch out.
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