Last week in this space, I profiled Phillies center field prospect Domonic Brown. This week, I'll take a look at Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain. There are a number of similarities between Brown and Cain, but a number of differences as well.
Both Brown and Cain received their call to the big league club following injuries to center fielders on their respective clubs (Shane Victorino and Carlos Gomez). Gomez was hit on the head with a fastball and suffered a concussion. Victorino has returned to the Phillies after spending time recuperating from an oblique injury.
Cain was recalled from Triple-A Nashville of the Pacific Coast League to take the place of Gomez, but the replacement may last beyond Gomez's return to health. The role of Gomez with the Brewers is very murky at this point. He is currently on a rehab assignment and more should be known later this week. More about the Gomez situation later in this piece.
At Nashville, Cain was hitting .299 in 87 at-bats over 22 games played. He had five stolen bases and was caught only once. Of importance is the fact he had walked 11 times while striking out 17 times in his brief time in Nashville. Strikeouts had been a problem for Cain in his first few years in baseball. Overall, his Triple-A line was .299/384/.425 for an OPS of .809.
Prior to his arrival in Nashville, Cain hit .324/409/434 for Double-A Huntsville in the Southern League. Those impressive statistics were in addition to his 21 stolen bases out of 23 attempts. Again, Cain had shown some newly developed plate discipline by walking 34 times and striking out on 52 occasions.
The core of Cainís game is his speed. He is fast with good instincts on the bases and in the outfield. It will be his speed and sound defense that keep him in the big leagues. On base percentage will be critical to follow if Cain is targeted as a prospect for your fantasy league team. If he gets on base, he can make things happen. Steals will come only after his personal comfort level with big league pitchers and ballparks increases.
Many of us grew up playing baseball. We played after school and all summer long. At the very least we were part of organized Little League and Pony League teams while we were in elementary school. Not so with Mr. Cain. Cain first began playing baseball sparingly in 10th grade. He was a tall and slender young man and he had played some basketball when he was young. But never baseball.
After high school in Florida, Lo-Cain (as he is known) entered Tallahassee Community College where he tried out and was successful playing baseball. A Brewers scout, Doug Reynolds, convinced the club to take a flyer on Cain and he was drafted as the 496th overall selection in the 2004 first-year player draft. He was the 17th round selection for the Brewers. Frankly, players that can run with projectable bodies usually get a second and third look in the first-year player draft. Thatís what happened to Cain. Reynolds is said to have taken a very personal interest in helping him become accustomed to baseball and even worked with Cain to help develop his body. It is not unusual for a scout to go to bat for a player he believes has the upside and potential to succeed. However, credit must go to Mr. Reynolds for sticking with a player with very raw, unproven tools but with a high projectable skill set and body type.
I have seen Lo-Cain play in two Arizona Fall League seasons and in spring training. He looks like a baseball player. He is a tall and wiry thin, fleet footed 6-foot-2, 185-pound athlete. He has extremely long legs that allow him to chew up real estate with long strides. His body type is very similar to the new wave of outfield prospects that are now finding their way onto major league clubs. Cain joins Domonic Brown and Jason Heyward as a trio of lanky projectable outfielders being counted upon to help their clubs. Floridaís Michael Stanton is a much more muscular physical specimen than Cain, Brown or Heyward. Others with similar ďDarryl StrawberryĒ body types but not currently on big league rosters include Cameron Maybin, and John Mayberry, Jr., Justin Maxwell is now with the Nationals after having been touted as a major prospect. He, too, fits that lanky body type.
Cain tore a knee ligament in April 2009 chasing a fly ball and he missed half a season, but he is very healthy today. Prior to the ligament damage he had missed a bit of time in spring training with hamstring issues. He is still growing into his lanky body and more muscle development, toning and refinement are probable.
Lo-Cain should be able to hit left-handed pitching well enough to sustain his place with the Brewers. He does struggle a bit with righties and his splits have always indicated much better success when he faces southpaws. But thatís perfectly fine with Milwaukee because they can now use Cain as part of a potent platoon in center.
Since being traded from the Twins to the Brewers for shortstop J. J. Hardy, Gomez has not lived up to expectations. He has struggled in the field and at the plate. As a result, the Brewers may be moving in a direction away from him. After recalling Cain to replace the injured Gomez, the club acquired left-handed hitting center fielder Chris Dickerson from the Reds. The tandem of Cain and Dickerson place a cloud of doubt around Gomez.
The combination of the left-handed hitting Dickerson and the right-handed hitting Cain may provide a solution to center field the Brewers have been seeking since the departure of Mike Cameron. Both Cain and Dickerson have speed on the bases and both are very good defensively. The Brewers gave up 40-year-old Jim Edmonds to get Dickerson. Not only is Dickerson 12 years younger than Edmonds at age 28, he is also signed through his arbitration year of 2014. At this point of their development, it appears Dickerson has more pop in his bat than Cain.
Cain is a hard-working, grind it out type player who is trying to learn patience and better pitch selection at the plate. He is attempting to be more selective and strike out less while walking more. If he can increase his on-base percentage he can steal more bases. He and Dickerson can provide a very good combination at the top of the batting order hitting in front of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart. Replacing Gomez with a combination platoon of Cain and Dickerson will put pressure on the opposing pitcher and give the big guns some guys on base to knock in. That is, of course, should the Brewers choose to jettison Gomez at some point. And of course, Cain and Dickerson have to get on base to make the platoon plan effective and viable.
In essence, Cain brings quick hands, strong wrists and a quick bat to the plate. His hands are quick enough to let the ball travel through the zone before swinging. That long look allows him to use the entire field as a hitter. At this stage, being only 24 years old and with little overall experience, he hasnít hit for much power. Thatís where players like Domonic Brown and Jason Heyward are unlike Cain. It's unlikely that he will develop consistent home-run power. However, hitting in Miller Park wonít hurt his chances for the long ball. Heís more a slashing, gap hitter. Cain should work on putting the right pitches on the ground and use his speed as a weapon. The gap hits will come. Weíll have to see if that happens against quality pitching.
Cain had played mostly right field early in his professional career, but he just didnít flash enough power to keep him in a power corner-outfield role. Center field plays to his strengths very well. In fact, he is a better than average fielder with a strong and accurate arm. He takes good routes and is constantly improving his defense. He and Dickerson will be a vast improvement over Gomez in center.
In short, I see Lo-Cain as a platoon player moving forward with the Brewers. He will get plenty of solid at-bats and heíll have a chance for a good, productive career. Much of Cainís future depends upon the Brewers' plans. What will the team do about signing Prince Fielder long term? What do they do with Gomez? If they lose Fielder will Mat Gamelís bat take his place or do they need to get more power? If they donít have enough power, can they afford to keep a slashing doubles hitter in the outfield? Do they trade Cain for pitching? In fact, the Indians were said to have had him on their list of desirable players when they chose Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta in the CC Sabathia trade.
Lo-Cainís future may rest with the longer rather than shorter-range plans of the big league club. The same might also be said for Dickerson. However, somebody has to play center. Itís better to have good defense and some run production than poor defense when a pitching staff is struggling like the Brewers have been doing of late.
Regardless of the short term, Cain will be secure in the future scheme of things because of his consistent improvement making contact at the plate, his outstanding speed on the bases, and his solid defense in center field. He can be trusted to give 100% effort every game. He wonít squander at-bats or give in to pitchers. His attitude and work ethic are highly desirable attributes that add value to a club. He should appear on the radar screen of most major league clubs as the teams discuss quality players on opposing rosters.
So far since being called up with the Brewers, Cain has appeared in 11 games covering 29 at-bats through Saturday August 14th. He was on the bench to start the Sunday game against left-handed pitching Ubaldo Jimenez. Cain is hitting a robust .345 with no homers, three RBI and five runs scored. He has walked three times and struck out six times. He has stolen a base and heís been caught once. Put simply, heís contributing. Heís also making his presence known to The Brass. And to Carlos Gomez.
Lo-Cain is a player to keep on your own personal radar screen. He may be a nice source for stolen bases at some point after he becomes familiar with major league pitching. While he isnít Jason Heyward or Michael Stanton, he is an upgrade from Carlos Gomez for the Brewers. And thatís what theyíre looking for as they plan for the future.