Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 3/22/12

Matt Cain will be a free agent at the end of this season. He’s been in serious negotiations with the Giants for months on a new contract. He’s set an Opening Day deadline for those negotiations. Here’s why Cain and the Giants need to get a deal done now.

Cain debuted with the Giants late in 2005 but pitched his first full season the following year. By 2007, he was pitching in the shadow of teammate Tim Lincecum and has done so ever since. But Cain is fourteenth in starting pitcher WAR since 2007 (20 WAR), and is tied with Cole Hamels for sixteenth in starter WAR over the last three seasons (12.3 WAR). Lincecum’s been better, but Cain could have been the ace on many good teams over the last five years.

Cain is (affectionately) known as the sabermatrician’s nightmare because he’s held batters to a lower-than-expected BABIP year after year and has a career home run/fly ball ratio that even Roy Halladay envies. But his other peripherals have been strong and, most importantly, moving in the right direction.

Cain’s strikeout-to-walk ratio hovered around 2.0 his first five years but has steadily climbed, averaging 2.7 the last two seasons, mostly attributable to a sharply declining walk rate. That’s led to a drop in WHIP, which sat at 1.08 in 2010 and 2011. But perhaps the most encouraging development for Cain has been his transition from an extreme fly-ball pitcher to a more balanced ground-ball/fly-ball one.

Cain is often compared to Zack Greinke and Hamels and the comparisons work, to a point. Over the last three seasons, Greinke’s been more of a strikeout pitcher than Cain and has had a higher-than-expected BABIP. Hamels falls between the two. The most important similarity among Greinke, Hamels and Cain is that they will all be free agents at the end of this season.

Which brings us back to Cain’s contract negotiations with the Giants.

If the Giants don’t reach a deal with Cain, the 2013 starting rotation will consist of Lincecum (signed through 2013), Barry Zito (mercifully in the last year of his contract), super-stud Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and, likely, prospect Erik Surkamp. Other expected free agent pitchers don’t make a lot of sense for the Giants in 2013 except for, perhaps, Brandon McCarthy, who’s turned his career around with the A’s. Obviously, if the Giants can’t reach a deal with Cain, they are unlikely to go after Greinke or Hamels, who will cost more.

In the 2014, the rotation will consist of Madison Bumgarner and four question marks. After trading Zack Wheeler to the Mets last season for Carlos Beltran, the Giants’ starting pitching depth — long the strength of the team– is thin. The next big thing is Kyle Crick, a hard-throwing Texas high school who the Giants drafted in 2011. But it may be too early to expect Crick in the majors by 2014.

Yes, the Giants want to sign Lincecum to a long-term deal, but those negotiations won’t begin until sometime next season, when the decision on Cain will already have been made. On the other hand, the Giants know Lincecum will command an AAV in the $25 million range or higher for at least five years, so they can slot that figure into their budget for the purpose of analyzing the cost of a long-term deal with Cain.

What kind of contract makes sense for the Giants and Cain? Over the last six seasons, Cain’s been worth, on average, $16.5 million. Last season his value shot up to $23.4 million. His peripherals are improving every year and he’s been healthy and durable since putting on a Giants uniform. He’s big and strong (6-3, 230) and has the frame to pitch 200-plus inning every season without breaking down.

Cain’s made it clear that he won’t give the Giants a “hometown discount” like Jered Weaver gave the Angels in signing his new 5-year/$85 million contract last season and, given his numbers, health and durability, I can see why. A five-year/$100 million deal makes more sense for Cain.

Would that work for the Giants? I don’t see why not.

The Giants payroll will hit $130 million this season and there’s no reason to think the team can’t sustain that level going forward. For 2013, San Francisco is locked into $59.2 million, comprised largely of salary for Lincecum and Zito, but also includes raises given to Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Vogelsong and reliever Javier Lopez. Buster Posey will be in his first arbitration year, but his salary won’t break the bank (at least not next season).

The big question mark, in terms of dollars, is closer Brian Wilson, who will earn $8.25 million this year. Wilson will be in his fourth year of arbitration-eligibility in 2013. There’s been low-level noise of a long-term deal with Wilson. Casting aside Cain to make room for an expensive Wilson contract makes no sense at all. The Giants have other options for a closer in the majors (Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo) and some prospects who could also fill that role down the road.

The only commitments the Giants have for 2014 are $8.25 million to Sandoval, a $7 million buyout of Zito, and the increasing costs of Posey and Bumgarner. By then, prospects Gary Brown will be roaming center field and Joe Panik will be handling the keystone, all for the league minimum. Adding in $25 million for Lincecum doesn’t preclude $20 million for Cain, given the other cost-controlled players.

Why should Cain sign with the Giants for $100 million, if that’s offered?

The list of teams who will pay $100 million or more for a pitcher starting in 2013 isn’t very long. In addition to the Giants, only seven other teams have payrolls over $100 million for this season: Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Rangers, Phillies and Cardinals. All of those teams have more committed to payroll for 2013 and 2014 than do the Giants. In addition, the Yankees and Red Sox say they will be careful not to exceed the luxury-tax threshold for the next two seasons, given the stiffer penalties under the new collective bargaining agreement. The Angels and Tigers made big free agent signings this offseason and may not have flexibility for another one in 2012. The Phillies are trying to reach a deal with Hamels and if they do, will not need Cain. That leaves the Rangers and the Cardinals. Both possibilities, to be sure.

Then there’s the ballpark factor. Even as Cain moves toward more of a ground-ball/fly-ball balance, he’s fly-ball pitcher, and one who’s had an extraordinarily low HR/FB rate. Yankee Stadium, the Ballpark at Arlington (Rangers), and Citizens Bank Ballpark (Phillies) give up a lot more home runs than league average. Fenway Park is tough for home run hitters, but it’s easy to imagine all those fly balls that now die in the outfield at AT&T Park hitting the Green Monster for doubles. Comerica Park (Tigers), Angels Stadium, and Busch Stadium (Cardinals) suppress home runs and extra-base hits, making them better suited for Cain.

Looking at payroll and ballpark, the Cardinals may be a good fit for Cain, but they are not a better fit than the Giants.  The Cardinals budget in 2012 is over $100 million, but barely so. Next year, they’re committed to $82.625 million. Whether they’d give Cain a better deal in the offseason than the Giants will offer now is unclear.

Are there teams who will compete for Cain if he becomes a free agent after this season? Sure. But do those teams play in ballparks suited to Cain’s pitching? If he made half his starts at Yankee Stadium, would his HR/FB ratio stay unnaturally low? Probably not. If he made half his starts in Fenway Park, would his career BABIP rise? Most likely.

Cain knows he can pitch and pitch well in AT&T Park and the other National League West parks. He works extremely well with Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti. The Giants need Cain to anchor the rotation, not knowing what will happen with Lincecum.

The Giants should pay Cain his fair market value and Cain should take the deal now.


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