clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tools made good: the case of Lorenzo Cain

New, 1 comment

Lorenzo Cain has been a huge part of Kansas City's success due to his baserunning, ability to hit for average, and superlative glovework.

Lorenzo Cain
Lorenzo Cain
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain was the MVP of the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles. This comes on the heels of an excellent regular season: .301/.339/.412 with 29 doubles, 28 steals, and outstanding defensive play leading to a highly-impressive 4.9 fWAR. According to WAR, he was the sixth-best outfielder in the American League this year.

Cain wasn't exactly a household name pre-season, but that's changing. Here's how he got here.

A 17th round pick in 2004 by the Milwaukee Brewers, Cain attended high school in Madison, Florida, but didn't sign immediately, heading to Tallahassee Community College. He signed as a draft-and-follow choice in the spring of '05, then proceeded to destroy the Arizona Rookie League, winning MVP and hitting .356/.418/.566. Here's the report filed for 2006:

Lorenzo Cain was drafted in the 17th round in 2004, out of high school in Madison, Florida. He didn’t make his debut until ’05, but what a debut it was, earning MVP honors in the Arizona Rookie League on the strength of a +34 percent OPS and a +48 percent SEC. Cain is toolsy, with power and speed on his resume. His strike zone judgment will need work at higher levels, as it was exposed as a weakness in a late trial in the Pioneer League. He runs well and is an effective defensive outfielder with a strong arm. Cain will need to show what he can do in full-season ball, but his debut was impressive and he should be watched closely. Grade C+

The Brewers jumped Cain up to West Virginia in the Low-A South Atlantic League in 2006 with good results: .307/.385/.425 with 34 steals. He had some rough edges on defense and with his strike zone judgment, but scouting reports were overall positive. The report entering '07:

Lorenzo Cain is very toolsy, and he’s made progress converting those tools into skills. Speed is his best attribute right now, helping him on both offense and defense, although his glovework still needs additional polish. With the bat, he has developed doubles power, and is strong enough to hit more home runs as he crafts his swing. His strike zone judgment is adequate, and has shown signs of improvement. His numbers in the Sally League last year are good, with an OPS of +15. I gave him a C+ last year, and am comfortable raising that to Grade B-. Provided he develops his home run power, that grade can be further elevated.

Cain's '07 was less impressive: .276/.338/.344 with 24 steals but just two homers and a 37/97 K/BB in 482 at-bats for Brevard County in the Florida State League. Reports continued to praise his tools and it is tough to hit for power in the FSL. He did make quite a bit of progress on defense. Here's the take entering 2008:

I gave Lorenzo Cain an aggressive B- rating last year, but he didn’t live up to that in the Florida State League, posting a -4 percent OPS. He’s got great speed, but his power isn’t developing, and his strike zone judgment remains marginal. Some scouts remain optimistic about his power development, while others don’t anticipate much improvement. Cain offers good defensive skills in the outfield to go with his speed, so perhaps he can be a reserve outfielder if the power doesn’t come. Double-A in 2008 will be a stern test for him. I am reducing his rating to Grade C+, which may still be a notch too high, but given his youth and tools he still has a chance to improve.

2008 was solid: he hit .287/.358/.448 in 80 return engagement games for Brevard County, followed by a .277/.363/.486 line in 40 contests for Double-A Huntsville. He played in the Arizona Fall League and looked very good. He made progress honing his swing, showing more pop while still stealing 25 bases overall. The report for '09:

Cain is a tools monster, but unlike many such players he’s begun to develop skills to make those tools meaningful. Refinements to his swing and better plate discipline boosted his production last year, giving him a +14 percent OPS in the Florida State League and a +13 percent OPS in the Southern League. The fact that his production remained steady after moving up to Double-A is a good sign. He still needs to cut back on strikeouts and improve his zone judgment, but progress is clearly evident. Cain’s speed is another positive asset, and he is also a fine defensive outfielder. He can play center now, though that may not be true if he loses his speed eventually. Cain hit .333/.382/.635 in the Arizona Fall League, with four steals in five attempts. He should begin 2009 in Triple-A, and if he maintains his current rate of progress, he’ll be ready for a major league job in ’10, producing good speed, average power, and (hopefully) reasonable on-base ability. Grade B-.

Alas, 2009 was a lost season: he suffered an early knee injury and hit just .218/.293/.330 in 60 games upon returning, split between Low-A Wisconsin and Double-A Huntsville. I saw him for Wisconsin and he was clearly struggling, although he looked a little better in the fall. The report for '10:

Lorenzo Cain has tremendous tools, and at times he flashes good skills to go with them. I was somewhat optimistic about his chances to develop entering 2009, but his season was a disaster, due to an April knee injury. He returned to the field in late June, and I got to see a couple of his rehab outings for Wisconsin. He didn’t look right; he was either still in pain, or playing like he was afraid of the pain returning. His swing was fouled up, and he wasn’t running with his normal speed. The knee got better by the end of the year, and Cain looked more like his normal self in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .242/.375/.303...still not very good, but his swing looked better and at least he was controlling the strike zone again. When healthy, Cain is very fast, has surprising power, will draw an occasional walk, and presents as an excellent defensive outfielder. He needs 400 at-bats in Triple-A to refine his swing. Cain’s grade has been yo-yoing between B- and C+ for four years. It’s back down to Grade C+ again, which still assumes some optimism about his offensive development

With a healthy knee, Cain returned to his former self in 2010, hitting .317/.402/.432 between Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville, then .306/.348/.415 in 147 at-bats for the Brewers, exceeding rookie qualifications for 2011. As you know, he was subsequently traded to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal. He had a great year in Triple-A in '11 (.312/.380/.497) but it took him a couple of years to seize a regular role in Kansas City due to more injuries and erratic hitting.

Cain is now 28 years old. He still has some weaknesses. His BB/K/PA ratio is problematic and his OBP is highly-dependent on his batting average, which is okay if he's hitting .300 but not so much if the BABIP doesn't go his way and he's hitting .260. He still lacks consistent home run power. However, Cain has still been a huge part of Kansas City's success due to his baserunning, ability to hit for average, and superlative glovework. His WAR was second among Royals position players this year, trailing only Alex Gordon.

What does the future hold? I still think it is possible that Cain could show more home run power in time. He flashed it in the minors, and while he isn't going to hit 30 homers playing regularly in KC, it wouldn't surprise me if he had a season where he hits 15.

In all the best ways, Cain reminds me a great deal of the old school Royals outfielders from the 1970s: his skills would fit right in with Amos Otis, Al Cowens, and Willie Wilson.

lorenzo cain

Lorenzo Cain, photo by Rob Carr, Getty Images