We'll never know what the Royals initially wanted to do with Lorenzo Cain in 2011. Perhaps what ended up transpiring -- a year in AAA while a veteran stopgap played CF in KC -- was truly optimal, perhaps it was just what ended up happening. The Royals signed Melky Cabrera on December 10, 2010, and nine days later they acquired Cain in the Greinke trade.
As we neared Opening Day, word kept coming out that Melky had signed with the Royals in part because he'd been promised either the starting job or a chance to compete for the starting job. I thought this was just another maddening, bizarre, and counter-productive Royals negotiation tactic, just another weird footnote to the Dayton Moore Era. Why are the Royals promising Melky Cabrera anything? But in retrospect maybe it was brilliant messaging, brilliant spin. The front office may be a lot of things, but they are not undisciplined in the media. Honoring a promise to Melky allowed the Royals to act like Cain was someone they truly wanted in CF, but just... gosh darn it, they ended up in this real pickle of a situation here. It sold Cain as a valuable piece and created an explanation for him starting AAA in Omaha. After all, if starting was simply an issue, Cain could have been up with the 2010 Royals in place of Mitch Maier or Jarrod Dyson.
Well, Melky's gone now.
Here are Cain's relevant stat lines from the last two seasons:
Cain's numbers in AAA improved from 2010 to 2011, which is encouraging. However, it must be said that a) he was 25 last season and b) everyone in the PCL hit last year. His wOBA+ from 2011 in Omaha is 108+, a tick or so above average. His numbers from the last two seasons are more encouraging than discouraging, but only by a matter of degree.
What the Royals now have in Cain is a young player entering his prime who is set to spend his late 20s earning the Major League minimum. Financially, that is all you can ask for. Cain, as a roster spot, is a little like inheriting a bungalow in Southern California in 1960. Barring the unforeseen, he's going to be a nice investment.
Like he former Brewer colleague Alcides Escobar, Cain is expected to generate a good chunk of his value by playing a premium defensive position well. If I had to wager on it, I'd say that he'll draw raves from fans and media members next season, garnering praise in the extreme. I expect that his defensive stats will be good, but a little less glowing. (This is mostly because I'm convinced observers of every team overrate anyone who is good defensively. There's no sense of scale or precision when evaluating glovemen, because comparing players is really really difficult. So as such, there are always about eight players at every position who their fans think is clearly the best at his position.)
This may all sound like I'm phlegmatic on Cain, which is true. It's funny. We've been all over the place on his abilities this last year. Last winter, I remember getting scolded on Twitter because I wrote that Cain probably needed some additional time in the minors. Then, when Melky started the season well and Cain struggled a little bit, opinions flipped. Let's trade Cain and lock up Melky! Now, we're back to being super excited about Cain again. He's not Jarrod Dyson, a fast guy who can't hit, but he's not an elite prospect either. I worry especially about his ability to make contact in the Majors, given that he struck out 102 times last year. The good news is that he's got a foundation of decent power and good OBPs to work from.
In the WAR era we've seen or learned or been reminded that center-fielders who hit close to league average and play good defense are extremely valuable. Centerfielders in the Dayton Moore Era have been a little bit like the minor local dieties of the ancient world, at once endless variety but all pretty much the same thing. The best ones, David DeJesus and Melky Cabrera have been the players that deviated the most from Moore's ideal. Hopefully, Cain can be the fast glove-first player who can hit a little that management has so long desired.