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.