Blogger's Roundtable: Matt Cain

Tom Gorman had the great idea of a prospect roundtable discussion among a number of Giants bloggers to talk about the prospects in the Giants minor league system. Participants included Tom and Rob (Fogball), Steve (Giants News Diary), Alex (El Lefty Malo), Doug (Westwood Blues), Grant (McCovey Chronicles) and myself. Steve did a great job moderating it.

In a post below are links to the other installments of our discussion. Our Matt Cain discussion follows, with a Merkin Valdez redux near the end, as I had found info on "El Mago" while digging up Cain's numbers:

Steve: So far we have discussed David Aardsma, Brad Hennessey, Pat Misch and Merkin Valdez. Now we want to discuss top prospect Matt Cain. Cain features a 92-95 mph fastball, a power curveball and an improving changeup. The Giants applaud his maturity, desire, work ethic and aptitude. As to how good Cain can become, there seems to be some difference among prospect analysts. Baseball America ranks Cain as the third best pitching prospect; John Sickels ranks Cain as the tenth best pitching prospect. (Baseball Prospectus is similar to Sickels, ranking Cain ninth.) How do you feel about Cain's upside potential? How much do you think Cain should contribute for the Giants in 2005?

Alex: I'm tickled to death that a Giant prospect is held in such high regard. And does it matter that Sickles (or whoever) rates him third, or ninth, or tenth? He's really really really good, because he did things last year that a 19/20 yr old has no right doing. We can only pray that the Giants use their best top-secret future medical technology (within legal limits, of course) to keep him healthy.

Instead of guessing how he might do if called up to the bigs this year, let me pose a question: how many pitchers under 21 do well

a) in the season they make the majors?
b) in the following few years?

Any data on that?

Another question: if you were the GM and could trade Cain straight up for Vernon Wells, would you?

Steve: I would say the difference between whether you are the third or ninth best pitching prospect is probably the difference whether you project to be an ace pitcher or just a very good pitcher. (Of course, margins of error for pitching projections may be very large and not "marginal" at all.) The only mention that Cain received in the Baseball Prospectus roundtable discussion about pitchers was Rany Jazayerli's comment that Cain "translates very poorly."

Tom, can you or someone else help explain what Rany means with this comment? Is he talking about PECOTA or something else? It is true that PECOTA does not like Cain very much, projecting him to be no more than a league average pitcher during the next five years. I don't know what it means, but it looked to me like PECOTA had a hard time coming up with a good list of comparable pitchers for Cain (or at least the pitchers who are atop the most comparable list are not that similar), so maybe the PECOTA projection does not mean as much.

Alex also asked about how young pitchers fare. In 2003, Baseball Prospectus ranked Jerome Williams the top pitching prospect (excluding Jose Contreras). This was largely due to his age. Part of the discussion by the BP authors was how "20-year old pitchers with 100+ IP in a season for a single team at Triple-A" had subsequently fared. From 1992 to 2001, there were eight pitchers in this category: Pedro Martinez, Rick Gorecki, Jose Pett, Roy Halladay, Ruben Quevedo, Ryan Anderson, Jon Garland and Carlos Zambrano. Here is how Matt Olkin, who is now a statistical analyst for the Mariners, summarized the list: "Interesting list. Throw out the two birthday frauds, and you have two aces, a No. 3 starter, and three career-ending injuries." Matt Cain has a good chance to have 100+ IP in Triple-A this year.

I will add some information about Vernon Wells. PECOTA projects Vernon Wells to be twice as productive as Matt Cain over each of the next five years. Of course, Wells will also earn a higher salary for the next several years. Under his current contract Wells is set to receive $2.9 million in 2005, $4.3 million in 2006 and $5.6 million in 2007.

Doug: When it comes to Matt Cain, I've set aside my usual TINSTAAPP religious beliefs and argued that Cain shouldn't be traded. However, my unwillingness to part with Cain was based on the assumption that the Giants would be trading him for a rent-a-player. If you have a chance to get a 26 year-old gold glove CF with a career OPS+ of 110 who is signed to a very, very reasonable contract over the next three years, you do it.

Grant: I would do the trade for Wells. That's nothing more than the bird-in-the-hand theory, and getting what you can take. The cold reality is that Cain's value is most likely at its zenith. That's just the statistics talking.

I've never seen Cain pitch, but how can you not love the chatter that surrounds him? If the A's could get three young pitchers to step right in to the rotation, pitch well, and pitch healthy, why can't the Giants? There is a distinct risk in proclaiming Jerome Williams healthy, or Noah Lowry anything at this point, but a Williams/Lowry/Cain trio would help the penny-pinching modus operandi of the Giants and be funner than heck to root for. It is going to be a real treat to watch him pitch, though. The bad/good thing is that there are plenty of options before Cain, should someone get hurt.

Steve: I suspect that I might have been the only one to see Cain pitch last year, on September 3rd. Here are the notes I made then:

"RHP Matt Cain: 4.0+ IP, 7 H, 9 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 0 K, 1 HR

Presumably his last appearance of the year, and probably one he would rather forget. No strikeouts? I will forgive one walk since it came with one out and a runner on 3rd base and he subsequently got the next batter to GIDP. Six errors on defense did not help, but he was the first one to make an error. His fastball was around 93 mph early (all readings off the stadium radar gun). I saw it a couple times at 94 and 96 mph. His fastball was mostly around 91 mph late in the game. His changeup does not seem to have much speed differential at approximately 87 mph. His curve was generally 75 mph. He did not seem to get many swingthroughs on that pitch, which probably goes a long way to explaining the lack of strikeouts."

Martin: I also remember a similar discussion comparing Jerome Williams young (under 21) achievements to other prospect pitchers, which I thought was Baseball Prospectus but I guess it was elsewhere (Baseball Primer?). It involved a comparison with Dwight Gooden and a number of other pitchers and basically came up with a similar type of splits between Ace pitchers and pitchers who blew out and came to the conclusion that Jerome was more likely to succeed than not and would be interesting to watch.

I personally think that unless the team blatantly needs a young hitting star, and I am not convinced that the Giants have to trade for one but rather can sign one once some high contracts end, or already have a staff full of aces and thus can afford to trade one away, I would rather keep any pitcher who has the potential to be an ace and let him develop (or not). Watching the Giants all these years and biased by my love for homerun hitting prospects, which started with Dave Kingman, I had never really thought about the need for such a pitcher, though I wouldn't have minded another John "The Count" Montefusco because I loved the strikeouts, but now I have come to the conclusion that we need strong starting pitchers, Aces, the more the better, and of course starting with Jason Schmidt.

A strong dominant pitching performance by a starter or starters, can totally change a series. We saw Bonds give one of the most dominating hitting demonstration in 2002 and we still lost. And Bonds was basically shut down in 2003 (once again). While I would love to see Bonds get his W.S. championship, I am beginning to think our window for winning revolves more around Jason Schmidt's outstanding performances than Bonds' and that the Giants should to do it internally with Williams and Cain as the leading candidates in pairing or hopefully trio-ing (and Foppert and Valdez as long shots currently) as Aces because the odds of signing one as free agent or trading for such an ace are low. So, no, I wouldn't trade Cain until he's proven to the Giants talent evaluators that he won't make it as a difference maker.

I especially wouldn't trade him for Wells. He's had one exceptional full season, in 2003, where his OPS+ was 131. He was 100 in 2002 and 103 for 2004 in OPS+. His OBP, even in his best season was just a bit better than OK at .359 (the maligned Tucker had .353 last season) and career of .333 (Tucker has a career .340 and the league OBP comparison with Wells was .340). So obviously his main allure is his power.

However, he plays at a park that accentuates hitting and in particular power hitting. In fact, Bill James 2005 guide lists Toronto at 110 for homers and 118 for doubles (where 100 is league average). That roughly added about 40 points to his SLG, dropping him from much above average to nearly average (Baseball-reference has his SLG at .486 and league at .436 and a drop of 40 would push him to .446; again for reference, Tucker's career is .429. And would drop Wells to below league average for 2002 and 2004 for SLG). And according to Bill James guide, Toronto favors RHH over LHH in terms of batting average. So Wells has been essentially an average offensive outfielder in 2 of his 3 seasons so far (essentaily a Tucker to my eyes) and we're trading one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball for him? I say no.

My demands for a Cain is a player who has proven over at least a 3 (and preferably 6, it will depend on the player) year period that he is an dominating offensive force. Anything less is a gamble to me and I would rather gamble to get a dominating Ace. Yes, prospects blow up all the time and be worth nothing. I think an Ace starter is worth the gamble. And it is not like an additional great hitter would push us over the hump - we did score the 2nd most runs in the NL last year - while a great starting pitcher might. I understand that Bonds career is nearing end but Cain could be good to great for us for many many years and I don't see many players who we can add who would be a difference to us.

Alex: "Unless the team blatantly needs a young hitting star..."? Forget "unless" --- they absolutely, positively, blatantly need one. And they absolutely, positively need someone who covers a lot of outfield ground. Not just for this year, but as an anchor for the next few years.

Steve: I would like to focus this discussion back on Matt Cain instead of Vernon Wells. What do you think is a reasonable expectation for us to have of Cain? Hypothetically, let's say the Giants have a situation where one of their current starters is no longer available after August 1st. That could possibly be because of a trade or an unfortunate injury. Does anyone think that Cain might be the Giants' best option to move into the rotation by that point? Or will Foppert, Hennessey and possibly even Misch be better options given Cain's youth?

Tom: It's all a question of how well Mr. Cain performs this year in AAA. He tore it up in low A at 18 and high A at 19, but, let's be honest, Merkin Valdez similarly tore up Hagerstown and San Jose to sort of hit a wall in Norwich. Cain didn't exactly hit a wall, and some of the degradation in his performance was likely due to exhaustion at the end of the season, but any predictions for the future are really going to depend on what happens next year in AAA. Cain will be 20 in baseball age, and if he can perform even slightly above league average I think it would be fair to say we will have ourselves a really interesting commodity.

Martin: Unless Foppert has a physical setback of some sort, I expect him to be option #1 for starter if an opening should occur for whatever reason. He seemed to be pretty well recovered in Spring Training. Now that he is starting in Fresno I expect him to be working on his pitching a bit more since he hasn't been lights out thus far. I assume they will let Cain continue to develop at AAA this year and be ready to join the rotation in 2006 unless they really need someone desperately. I think Cain's past elbow problem will dictate a more cautious approach, especially after what happened with Foppert.

To me the difference between Cain and Valdez is that while Valdez appears to be searching for his second complementary pitch, Cain already has one and possibly two (curve already good and working on others) plus a mature attitude and approach, which I haven't seen as a description of Valdez. I expect Cain to do better than Valdez at the higher levels because he has more pitches than Valdez at this point.

That said, while looking at their stats for last year, Valdez didn't do that badly in AA. His WHIP was 1.20, his H/9 was 7.56, his HR/9 as 0.65, all good (and all better than Cain) plus his K/9 was OK at 6.7 (Cain was higher 7.53) and W/9 was OK at 3.24 (Cain was much worse at 4.19); only his ERA at 4.32 was bad (though in only 41.2 IP; he didn't pitch many innings for any team). So if he can cut back on his walks and keep everything else the same, he could be looking pretty good this year.

I know we are done with Valdez but looking at his stats now I see he didn't perform that badly in 2004, he just didn't knock people's eyes out like Foppert did at the higher levels in 2002 or do as well as hyped by Sabean. If he can figure out his secondary pitch (like Lowry did last season), he could have a great season in 2005 and be ready for the majors in 2006, when he would still be only 24 years old.

Back to Cain, while it is troubling that his rate stats went down in AA, they were all still good to pretty good except for W/9 at 4.19 (ERA 3.35; H/9 7.64; HR/9 0.73; K/9 7.53; WHIP 1.31), though that is moderated by the fact that Norwich is a pitching oriented park according to Baseball Prospectus' park factors table. If he can regain his control (and he was able to improve before, having a W/9 of 5.12 in rookie ball in 2002 before his breakout year in 2003, where he only recorded W/9 of 2.92) he should continue his rapid ascent up the farm system.

Plus, to reiterate a point I think someone else made already, his arm might have been tired by the end of the 2004 season as he pitched 158.2 innings in 2004, where his previous professional high was 74.0 IP the season before. Given his maturity, his having good command of at least a couple pitches, ambitions, and success thus far, I expect him to start in Fresno and be pushing for a spot in the majors by mid-season, right behind Foppert.

Speaking of which, it could be a pretty amazing rotation in Fresno later this year if Merkin Valdez receives a mid-season promotion there and Foppert is still there. (I expect Foppert to be promoted if either a reliever or starter is dropped from the roster, for whatever reason.) The rotation would then be Jesse Foppert, Matt Cain, Merkin Valdez, Pat Misch and Brad Hennessey.

Steve: This seems to draw a conclusion to our discussion of Matt Cain.

Next we want to discuss some of the Giants more advanced hitting prospects. (Coming soon to a Giants blog near you...)

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