Leading into the winter meetings Tigers fans were under the assumption that general manager Al Avila would either be selling off the veterans to the highest bidder, or doing whatever he needed to keep the purse strings tied tight. Then, somewhere in the midst of the trade talks, the narrative changed. Suddenly Avila wasn’t necessarily looking to make wholesale changes. He wasn’t as motivated to move players like J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler. All the worry over whether or not Justin Verlander would be wearing Dodgers blue evaporated as Rich Hill returned to Los Angeles and the Boston Red Sox landed Chris Sale.
Now that the story is different, so too are the Tigers’ options. If the team is not rebuilding quite yet, and instead hoping to contend again in 2017, they need to address two very real holes in their roster. One, a back-up catcher. And two, the hole opened in centerfield by the trade of Cameron Maybin to the Angels.
With Avila now expressing a willingness to go over the luxury tax threshold, there’s a possibility the Tigers might be prepared to buy this offseason. Perhaps the best place to go shopping is in Kansas City, where the Royals have made it clear that Lorenzo Cain is available for trade.
Who is he?
Lorenzo Cain is the 30-year-old All-Star center fielder for the Kansas City Royals. He’s a career .287/.337/.416 hitter who has been known to steal bases with relative frequency. While he’s not as adept as someone like Rajai Davis, he still managed 14 stolen bags in 2016 and was caught only 5 times. In both 2014 and 2015 he nicked 28 bags. He’s also relatively young compared to a player like Davis, and is unlikely to command as much salary as someone like Dexter Fowler, making him a good middle-ground option.
Why should we care?
It’s Cain’s fielding rather than his bat that should appeal to the Tigers. In 2016 his DRS in center field was +8 and his UZR was +7.7. In his all-star 2015 season, his numbers were even better with a DRS of +18 and a UZR of +14.3. That Cain was not nominated for a Gold Glove that year still boggles the mind, but he was a finalist for AL MVP. Last season he made 70 out of zone plays, and in 2015 that number was an astronomical 114. He is an absolute gem of a center fielder.
At bat he’s not the greatest addition to the Tigers order, but he still offers an improvement. His numbers are better than Maybin’s .259/.322/.373, and if he was positioned properly in the lineup his speed on base and ability to steal could prove very beneficial to the Tigers.
Why should we stay away?
Cain is not a home run hitter. In 2016 he hit only nine long balls, and he tends to pull the home runs he does hit to left field and left-center. It’s worthwhile to note this because the Comerica outfield is deeper than the Kauffman outfield in several areas. The Kansas City left field wall is 330 feet and left-center is 387 feet. In Detroit, left field is 345 feet and left-center is a slightly shorter 370. Center field is ten feet deeper in Detroit as well. This could potentially cause a drop in Cain’s home run numbers, as many of his runs align very close to the wall, as they did in 2016.
More concerning still is the cost to get him to Detroit. Cain would make $11 million with the Royals in 2017, his last year before free agency. To get him at this point would require giving up players the Tigers might not want to part with, and at a cost they likely don’t want to pay. And for a one-year lease it hardly seems worthwhile, unless the Tigers genuinely believe that 2017 is their last chance at contention.
Will he end up in Detroit?
This kind of deal flies in the face of what we were told to expect from the Tigers this offseason. But at the same time, everything we’re now hearing from Avila is contrary to indications, however overblown, going in. If the Tigers want to win, and are willing to put up the money to contend, they need a strong batter who can also fill the gap in center field. Lorenzo Cain, more than any other option on the market, is the ideal player to do that for the Tigers. So while it isn’t likely, it would fit the trend of past moves the Tigers have made, and might prove that Avila was paying attention when he worked alongside Dave Dombrowski for all those seasons. Whether or not it would be worth the cost is another question entirely.