Continuing the trend of Spring Training questions, I've been wondering how well Lorenzo Cain has to perform this season in order to win our approval. There are a lot of mixed opinions on how good Cain will be, particularly at the plate. Via FanGraphs, the range of production estimations extends from ZiPS' .259/.314/.370 to Bill James' .284/.337/.416 with every other projection falling somewhere in between. There is a clear lack of consensus when it comes to evaluating how Cain will perform in 2012.
Last year, Melky Cabrera played like his love handles were on fire. At least, at the plate he did; He was 46th in the league in Batting Runs, 3rd on the team behind Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. I don't know anyone whose opinion I respect that believes he will perform that well again this season.
Cabrera was also a poor defender (-6.7 runs) and an averageish baserunner (3.5 runs). Owing to the center field positional adjustment, he came in at 4.2 fWAR, worth approximately $19m last year.
Lorenzo Cain is a good defender. At least, that's what all the fancy people told me 18 months ago. This trend has continued throughout his time with the Royals, both in Omaha last year and this year in Spring Training. I may be remiss, but I don't think it is going completely off the deep end to say that Cain is good for 5.0 runs as a defensive center fielder.
As a baserunner, I doubt that he will be able to out-value Cabrera's 3.5 runs by a wide margin; he was just 16-for-22 in stolen bases last year. He has shown good base stealing ability in the past, however; in 2010, he was 33-for-37 in steals across multiple levels for the Brewers. He suffered a knee injury in 2009, which limited his running opportunities (he only had six attempts, being caught three times), but in 2008 he was 25-for-31. Cabrera was 20-for-30 last year, and I would expect Cain to see a few more attempts and be a little more successful as well. So, I will go ahead and pencil him in for 5.0 runs as a baserunner.
Granting that Cabrera and Cain would have the same positional adjustment, Cain's much-improved defense and slight edge in baserunning means he would only need to score about 9-12 batting runs in order to equalize Cabrera's WAR from last year.
And then there's the offense...
ZiPS' wOBA projection for Cain (.306) puts him on par with last year's Murderer's Row of Raul Ibanez, Hideki Matsui, Robert Andino, Juan Rivera and Omar Infante, all of who scored somewhere between -2.7 and -6.9 batting runs. If Cain hits like these gentlemen, then he will be worth between 2-2.5 WAR on the year, making him a contributor, but certainly not a keystone of the future.
Bill James' wOBA projection for Cain (.334) would send him into the company of Nick Markakis, Jon Jay, Torii Hunter, Derek Jeter, Erick Aybar and Dan Uggla, who scored between 5.5 and 9.4 batting runs. If Cain produces like this lot did in 2011, he would be worth anywhere from 3.5-4 WAR.
This marks a clear range of value that Lorenzo Cain may end up being worth at the end of the 2012 season. If he is the defender that everyone reports that he is, and the baserunner that his track record suggests he will be, Cain will more than likely average 3 WAR a year as long as he manages a wOBA around .315.
The most apt comparison for Lorenzo Cain's best-case scenario may be Peter Bourjos. He combined for 10.7 runs with his defense and baserunning and added an additional 9.7 runs with his bat, hitting .271/.327/.438 with a .336 wOBA, earning 4.3 WAR.
On the other end of the spectrum, he could be Austin Jackson v2011, who earned 7.3 runs with his defense and baserunning and -4.9 batting runs, hitting .249/.317/.374 with a .309 wOBA, earning 2.8 WAR.
I think it is fair to say that Lorenzo Cain will end up somewhere between these two recesses, and that anything less could be considered a disappointment.