Pondering a Matt Cain extension

A week ago, Larry Baer sent out a letter to San Francisco Giants fans that was ultimately an apology of sorts, in which he mused about 2011 and the Giants’ commitment to the future. One paragraph in the letter details the means through which the organization is striving to maintain a contending team, and the last item particularly stands out:

That remarkable send-off still reverberates through the hallways and offices here at AT&T Park. We already are deep into the challenging, strategic work of building a championship-caliber team for 2012 and beyond. That means pushing innovation, whether in baseball analytics, physical training or video technology. It means thorough scouting and smart coaching; drafting and developing young players; deepening the talent pool up and down the roster; studying every possible deal; and securing and protecting the best pitching staff in baseball.

When it comes to securing the rotation, the priority is Matt Cain. For a number of reasons, extending Cain is more important than extending Lincecum: he’s younger, he becomes a free agent in 2013 (a year before Lincecum), he’ll be cheaper, he’s the longest-tenured Giant, and he’s shown a more promising trend over the past several seasons. In addition, Lincecum has said that he prefers short-term deals, and at the annual post-season press conference, Sabean acknowledged that Cain’s situation is more “pressing.”

Given how young Cain is (2011 was his age-26 season) and the durability he’s shown over his career thus far (1271 innings over his first six full seasons), the target contract length for Cain could be as high as five years. Believe it or not, deals of that kind of length are pretty rare for starting pitchers, but Cain’s case is a little unusual: having debuted in the majors when he was 20 years old, he reaches free agency at a younger age than most guys (2012 would have been his first year of free agency had he not signed an extension in 2010).

Cain currently sits at 24.2 career fWAR, though that mark pretty clearly undervalues him. He’s maintained a batting average on balls in play of .265 over his career, and is a notorious DIPS outlier. Because of this, fWAR, which is an FIP-based metric, isn’t exactly the best WAR implementation to use here. Looking at rWAR (based on runs allowed, with a minor adjustment for defense), he’s been worth 25 wins above replacement to date. rWAR uses a lower replacement level than fWAR, so my preference is to adjust it (the standard is to multiply it by 118%, which puts it on the same scale as fWAR). Anyway, adjusting for replacement level, he’s averaged 4.6 WAR/season over the last six years, and 5.2 WAR/season over the last three years.

On the open market, a win is worth roughly $4.5MM, so assuming Cain replicates his three-year average over the life of an extension, that’s an average annual value of $23MM — not accounting for inflation. Over five years, that’s $115MM in value.

A couple model contracts stand out in particular for a Cain extension: first and foremost — John Lackey‘s five-year $82.5M deal with the Red Sox, which will keep him in Boston until 2014. Lackey’s performance prior to the signing was fairly similar to that of Cain in recent years: over 2007-2009, ages 28-30, he averaged 4.3 rWAR per season, or an adjusted 5 rWAR per season. The second is Cliff Lee, who consistently performed at an elite level (adjusted 6.5 rWAR per season from 2008 to 2010) before signing a monster five-year $120MM deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lee’s deal covers his age-32 through age-36 seasons, while Lackey’s deal takes him from ages 31 to 35. It’s thus understandable that Cain, while not quite the elite pitcher that Lee is, would likely fall in the middle range between Lackey and Lee — especially considering age. Something in the range of five years at $90MM perhaps, covering Cain through 2017.

Such a contract is inherently risk-laden, but also has the potential to be very rewarding in terms of surplus value. Tacking on five years to Cain’s current contract would conceivably keep him in a San Francisco Giants uniform for the entirety of his prime; assuming he stays healthy under such a contract, he could anchor the Giants’ rotation for years to come.

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12 thoughts on “Pondering a Matt Cain extension

  1. That would be fantastic for the Giants to lock up Cain for the next 4-5 years. He would also be a steal at 5/$90MM, what I feel would a “hometown discount” considering he could (and would) get a 9-figure contract on the open market as you suggested.

  2. No doubt about it that extending Matt Cain needs to be at the very top of the off-season to-do list for our Jints. I’ve been thinking about that for months, actually. Even aside from the analytical argument, which you have admirably presented, and which, granted, is the most important reason, there is also the intangible aspect: at this point, Cain and Sandoval are, for my money, the “soul” of this team. Now I know that means pretty much nothing these days, but I go back a ways, to the days when it did. It would be nice to think it still does.

  3. Keeping Matt Cain locked up is such a no-brainer that even thinking about not doing it should be grounds for dismissal. I agree with the person that said Cain and Sandoval are the soul of the team. I personally think that it matters even more now than before. Where there is a lack of something, that something becomes even more valuable.

  4. Sabean, Baer, et.al. need to get this done immediately after the conclusion of the World Series. Matt Cain is not only an outstanding pitcher, he is also an outstanding young man and is a cornerstone of this team. I agree with the heart and soul comments as well. The Giants may have to overpay a bit in order to convince Cain to commit to 4-5 years, given the very poor offensive support he has received for most of his career. That being said, I believe he would accept 4yrs/$75 million, starting with the 2013 season.

  5. I have to say. I like Cain better then Lincecum. Lincecum seems to have his ups and downs throughout the season. Cain seems to be more steady. Of course, we are talking about guys that are probably future HoFs.

    • I think I agree with this sentiment. Lincecum has not been as good over the last two seasons (though obviously still a fantastic pitcher), and his uptick in walks is concerning. Cain, on the other hand, has shown steady improvement over his career.

  6. Of course they lock him up. No brainer.

    How much to pay is the question. How about a nice Jered Weaver hometown discout deal of 5/85? 5/90 is more realistic though.

    • The Weaver dea covered some of his arb years, I believe. I imagine he would have made slightly more $ if he was a free agent to-be. Anyway, a conract in that range would definitely be a nice deal.

  7. Of course sign him and lock him up for 5 years. This is a non-issue. Let’s talk about signing a few hitters. Please pass on Beltran for player less likely to be injured, with more of his career ahead of him, and with an agent not named Scott Boras. I know this is a longshot, but i’d like to see the team let Ross, DeRosa and Beltran all walk, AND trade Zito (regardless of how much of the contract needs to be eaten) AND SIGN ALBERT PUJOLS (if possible). Then trade Huff, and try Pill and Belt in the OF. Posey and Sandoval are good hitters, put them together with a genuine elite hitter and we might actually score more runs than we give up next year. If Pujols is not obtainable, plan B might be Michael Cuddyear as a free agent in RF and Pill at 1B.

    • I’d say the chances of the Giants signing Albert Pujols are 0.0000000001%. They have about enough money to sign a mid-tier FA (Jimmy Rollins?), and that’s about it. Michael Cuddyer could make sense, though I think the Giants are sticking with Nate Schierholtz in right field. My guess is they pursue a centerfielder, probably Coco Crisp, and maybe get a few supplemental fillers where necessary.

      Brett Pill does not factor into future plans because he’s 27 years old, and he’s not very good.

      • That high? That’s great!! …it was just a dream. And you’re probably right about Pill, though some players emerge late (such as Lefty Grove, Wade Boggs, even Brett Gardner).
        Don’t like Coco Crisp, and Shierholtz has not been good enough in RF. But of course we’re talking about what the club SHOULD do, not what it will do. The changes you mention are all just nibbling around the edges, but the offensive problems are systemic and call for big changes. Getting Posey back, Pablo having another good year, getting Sanchez back, all this is good, but not all can be counted upon, and isn’t sufficient in any case.
        Please pass on Rollins, he won’t come cheap and he seems to be in decline. Plus he’s not the kind of hitter needed. Rather, the crying need is for a legitimate middle of the order hitter. If Huff rebounds that would be swell, but still not enough. Going after Cuddyear would be a far more serious move. Bringing in stiffs like Tejada, or milking the end out of guys like Burrell or Huff, is not going to cut it.

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