Two and a half years ago, the Royals traded the best player they'd had in a long time, Zack Greinke, for a package of young Major Leaguers and prospects. The Royals haul of Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Jeffress looked pretty good at the time and in many ways, it still does. At the time, most thought the centerpiece of the trade was Escobar, although more than a few argued that it was Odorizzi. Although his first two MLB seasons had been underwhelming, Escobar was a former #12 Baseball America prospect who was still young and had a good deal of upside potential. Odorizzi's prospect stock was rising, with some describing him as Greinke-like (or at least Greinke-lite) and was about to crack BA's top 100 at #69.
Lorenzo Cain was far from a throw-in, but he didn't have a sterling prospect pedigree, outstanding scouting reports or spectacular minor league stats. He was also a little long in the tooth, as he turned 25 just two weeks into the season. Most thought he looked like a good 4th outfielder, with the upside to be an average MLB centerfielder.
But baseball has a way of turning expectations on their head. Odorizzi's prospect stock shot up, leveled off and now most think his ceiling is somewhat limited. Escobar has been alternately good and bad. And Cain has been considerably better than expected, but has also dealt with some injury issues. Odorizzi is now a Tampa Bay Ray, and the Royals have Wade Davis in his stead (for better or worse). So who was the better get in the Greinke trade: Escobar or Cain?
Both Cain and Escobar play at premium defensive positions, so their offensive bar isn't very high. But the comparison isn't particularly close. Cain has been the better hitter across the board. He makes good contact, gets on base at a decent rate and has a bit of power. He's been an above average MLB hitter, which is pretty impressive for a slick fielding CF. One big caveat for Cain with regard to every stat is that there is a limited amount of data. His MLB stats represent little more than a full season of play. It's too soon to say that this is the real Cain. He could still turn into a pumpkin. Escobar isn't an awful hitter for a shortstop, but those certainly aren't good numbers. He doesn't have much patience at the plate, so his OBP is mostly batting average driven. In the seasons in which the BABIP fairies sprinkle their magical singles dust on him, he'll have a pretty good AVG and thus OBP (See 2009 and 2012). When the fairies fail to bestow their magic upon him, his AVG and OBP will be quite low (See 2010, 2011 and 2013).
The above fielding stats are just UZR and DRS (once known as Dewan's Plus/Minus) divided by a constant that represents approximately a full season of regular playing time (150 games for UZR and 1,200 innings for DRS). The scouting reports on Escobar basically described him as nearly the second coming of Ozzie Smith. He was supposed to be a multi-plus defensive shortstop with limitless range, a cannon for an arm and more hands than Yuniesky Betancourt could even dream of. So far, the numbers haven't shown that. If you combine his fielding stats with his current scouting reports, along with our own amateur scouting we see a shortstop whose defense is above average-to-good, but certainly not great. Cain was supposed to be a good defensive centerfielder and he's lived up to his billing and even surpassed it. But the caveat about Cain's data sample size goes triple for his defensive stats. The sample size on his defensive stats is the equivalent of less than half of a season of hitting stats. His numbers describe a truly great defensive CFer, but I don't think that's how things are going to shake out for him. Over time, I think those numbers will regress somewhat towards league average. But even at that, the Royals still have a good, or perhaps even very good fielder in center.
Value - WAR
Looking simply at WAR per 150 games played, Cain absolutely blows Escobar away. Escobar is helped by his positional adjustment and his base running, but even with that, Cain has been twice as productive per game played as Escobar. But Cain hasn't played nearly as much as Escobar, and WAR is a counting stat. If you're out on the field, you have the opportunity to put numbers up. You don't add to the team when you are in the minors or on the DL and Cain has had his share of both. Cain spent most of his first year with the Royals in the minors while we all enjoyed Dr. Melky's Medicine Show (TM). And Cain spent a lot of time on the DL last year. It's hard to say at this point how injury prone he is, but it appears to be something of a weakness for him.
Value - $$$
|Escobar||$3M||$3M||$3M||$5.25M CO||$6.5M CO||FA|
Both players are cost controlled through 2017, with a good deal of team flexibility due to the pre-FA non-guaranteed contract (Cain) and club option years (Escobar). Escobar is guaranteed more money (a minimum of $10M over the above period, as compared to almost nothing being guaranteed to Cain), but his contract has a lower ceiling. If Cain stays healthy and is productive, he could end up making a good deal of money in his arbitration years. Potentially, he could make $4M, $6M and $8M in his arbitration years. If he does, and if Escobar's options are exercised, then Cain would make $19M over these five years and Escobar would make $20.75M. Both situations have their pluses and minuses, but I think they are a wash overall.
Lorenzo Cain has clearly been the better major league player when he's played, but Escobar has been a horse, playing almost everyday the last few years. But it appears that Escobar's ceiling may be capped. He's not a wizard in the field and needs BABIP spikes to have occasional good hitting years. This may well lead to him having seasons which alternate between 1 and 3 WAR. He appears to me to be a roughly average MLB player. Cain on the other hand is chock full of upside. And I don't mean upside to improve into something better. His upside potential is that he can stay fairly healthy and continue to produce at the level that he has nearly consistently performed at over his four partial MLB seasons. I don't think he's the 4-5 WAR player that he's been (prorated) so far in the majors. But even with some regression and time on the DL, I think he's an above average MLB player at around the 3 WAR level.
As a post-script, if I am correct in describing Escobar as a 2 WAR player and Cain as a 3 WAR player, having those guys for something like a dozen relatively inexpensive cost controlled seasons combined is a great return for two years of a not entirely cheap Zack Greinke. That's a positive mark on Dayton Moore's grade card.