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...)


Giants finally win one

By the hair of their chinny-chin-chin, 4-3 in extra innings (13). Only eked out 6 hits, luckily one of them was Lance Niekro's 2nd homer (then again, the D-backs were lucky themselves, their 3 runs came off a homer, else they were shut out as well). Bullpen was stellar again.

Felipe is talking about shaking up the lineup - Vizquel leading off, Durham 3rd, Moises 4th, Feliz lower - in order to get the offense going. Moises being in there should help immensely, nothing against "Mr. Colorado" Michael Tucker (he kills Colorado but sucks vs. everyone this year). Our pitching will get healthy on the Brew-crew's meager offense, though they have a few players who are hitting well, like Brady Clark plus Lyle Overbay was doing OK until recently. The Brewer's pitching, however, has been pretty good so let's see if the Giants offense can do anything against them. Alou has historically hit well against them, so hopefully he can lead the offense this weekend.

Lineup? Vizquel, Snow, Durham, Alou, Alfonzo, Feliz, Grissom, Matheny if Alou goes to his lineup shake up.

Lowry gets his first loss

Well, it finally happened and at least it's now out of the way, I think reporters fixated on that too much and might have weighed on his mind. Plus part of it is pure luck, there were games that he should have lost, like the one in Colorado, and this time he gutted out a good performance (eventually) out of the lemon pitching he did in the early going, retiring the last 7 batters he faced. And if it wasn't for Vizquel's error, the game would have been tied and he wouldn't have gotten the loss, the game would have went into extra innings.

Yes, no reason to be happy, pretty pissed right now, but the cliche is that it is still early. Sure, it hurts that our hated rivals, the Dodgers seem to pull a rabbit out of their hat every other day. It hurts that we are already 6 games behind. But they are going good right now and eventually that lucky streak will end and the Giants will inch back closer.

Remember, the Giants had a huge lead early in 2003 and had the Dodgers, then the D-backs, rush all the way back to tie the Giants or at least get real close again to make it a valid pennant race. They each got back players who helped them do it, the Dodgers got Kevin Brown going on a great hot streak (he was injured the year before), then the D-backs got back the Unit (he was injured early in the season, if I remember these correctly). The Giants will get such a boost, partially from Alou returning, mainly when Bonds return. Then the close games that we are losing will become close games that we are winning.


Bloggers' discussion of Giants prospects

Sorry, I was nose deep with work and it didn't dawn on me that I have been remiss in not linking up to a discussion of Giants prospects that a number of us bloggers have been doing and that I had the honor of being invited to.

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.

Leading off was the discussion of David Aardsma that was on Fogball.

Next up was the discussion of Brad Hennessey that was on El Lefty Malo.

Third up was the discussion of Pat Misch that was on McCovey Chronicles.

Clean-up was the discussion of Merkin Valdez that was on Westwood Blues (posting date: April 18th).

Fifth will be the discussion of Matt Cain that will be here soon.

Then we will end with a discussion of some of the hitting prospects back at Fogball again.

No place like home...

OK, not the greatest of road trips, 2-5. The Giants could not get their offense going in either LA or SD, two of the more extreme pitchers parks in the NL, as players who were red-hot cooled down. Plus it didn't help that Alou had to play Grissom in LA - the difference between the faltering Grissom of LA and the robust Grissom of SF is that he can't hit for his life in Dodger Stadium but he loves hitting in SBC Park (Career: .273/.319/.417/.736; Dodger Stadium: .238/.285/.401/.686; SBC: .302/.331/.474/.805). And if it wasn't for Tucker heating up at the right time, the losing would have been a heck of a lot worse. Hopefully the Giants will be inspired by home cooking and beat up on Arizona and Milwaukee over the next 5 days; however, the D-Backs aren't the sad sacks from last year, though luckily we are facing Javier Vasquez, who still is in his funk, and Ortiz is always good for a lot of baserunners via inopportune walks. Plus Alou will be coming back on Friday, if his recovery continues unabated.

Heard something interesting today. The difference between the Giants of 2003 and the Giants of 2004 basically hinged on the way they played the Padres. In 2003, they whupped them good, going 15-4 during the season. In 2004, they got a whipping, going 7-12. That is an 8 game difference, which would have translated into a 99 win season in 2004 had they continued their dominance. Obviously, when you go 15-4 against any team, there is a lot of luck and randomness involved, but by win/loss record, that is what was the difference between the teams of those two years.

After tonight's loss, they are now 0-2, a bad start but still early. They were 7-2 in SD in 2003, 4-6 in SD in 2004 (which implies 3-6 in SF in 2004). Hopefully Alou will get his hitting stroke going fast once he gets back as the offense has been needing it the past week. One might have thought that Tucker's slammer would have put a little energy into the lineup but there was no carry over, the offense has been pretty limp except for Niekro.


Feliz making it hard so far, which is nice

Giants won 2 of 3 over the weekend from the Rockies, a good thing anytime but especially so at Colorado, especially with our two big guns on the shelf. The Rockies always give the Giants a hard time at home, it doesn't matter how good or bad they were, once the Giants meet them, they play like defending champs or something.

And the bullpen did not get overworked much, even though the starters' ERA took a beating. And Schmidt was the starter who took the loss! And they beat the two righties while the lefty beat them! When they normally KILL LHP and is vulnerable to RHP. Anomalies everywhere!

Feliz has been a big part of the Giants being able to keep their head above water while Alou and Bonds are out of the lineup. He is tied for the lead in homers and runs scored, first in RBI, and hitting .311/.380/.556/.936, amazing, since when does he take walks! He is making it hard for the Giants/Felipe to sit him down once everyone is well.

I had run this thought process out before but thought I would do it again to see how it would work out. Bonds out once a week. Alou probably out once a week as well, particularly right after getting off the DL. Plays 1B when LHP starting for other team, that's about one every five days or three every two weeks. Plays 3B once every two weeks (once Alfonzo cools down; he has been even hotter than Feliz) That works out to four games per week average or about 4 x 20 or 80 games after logging about 40 games before Bonds comes back, making his total AB approximately 120 games worth or 500+ AB, not too bad. Plus about a dozen games where there will be a DH and Bonds would DH, or 132 games/550+ AB.

Tucker is also making it hard on Alou, he has been stellar this weekend after starting slow. His rate line has improved with his play and hitting the past week or so, he is tied for the team lead in HR and second in RBI, while hitting .276/.323/.621/.943 He will probably get time resting Grissom but with Feliz doing so well, Feliz will probably take away Tucker's time playing in RF and LF. And Grissom has been playing well and would not want to be rested much. Even if Grissom gets 1 game rested per week like Bonds and, instead, give the extra 12 games with DH to Tucker, that only works out to about 32 games in addition to the approximately 22 or so games he will get into before Bonds comes back.

Poor Rueter, pitched decently the past two games, good enough to win, but the bullpen got smoked both times (though Rueter was not Rueter-like either time either). This time he got smoked but the bullpen saves the day and he got out with no losses (or wins). I love Rueter but the Giants brain trust must have noticed that both Cain and Hennessey had good starts (Foppert unfortunately did not do well). It is too early to do anything about Rueter but he needs to get untracked somehow or he could get dumped by mid-season if any of the wunderkinds are ready to take the next step up. That could push Walker or Fassero to the minors if the Giants try to put Rueter in the bullpen for a while.