Raising-and Keeping-Cain

On Monday fans of the San Francisco Giants received the best piece of news since their team won the World Series in 2010. Matt Cain, one of the team’s, and the game’s, best pitchers, opted to sign a five year $112 million extension with the Giants, rather than test the free agent market after this season. Cain, who will be 28 in October has pitched over 1300 innings, with an ERA+ of 125 since his big league career began in 2005. In the 2010 post-season, he helped lead the Giants to their World Series title, pitching 21.1 innings without giving up an earned run. Cain is also a workhorse who has pitched more than 200 innings in each of the last five seasons.

Cain’s contract, which runs through 2017, will pay him an average of just under $23 million per year beginning in 2013. There are no guarantees in baseball, particularly with regards to pitchers, but Cain seems like a pretty good bet to prove himself worth the money. The Giants have only signed Cain through his age 32 season, so while he will probably be slightly past his prime when the contract expires, it is unlikely that he will be firmly in the decline phase of his career by 2017. Cain, of course, could get hurt or stop being effective at any time, but his strikeouts, walks and home runs per nine innings have been very consistent in recent years. In fact in 2010, he struck out more batters per nine innings, 7.3, than he had in any year since 2008, while giving up fewer home runs per nine innings, 0.4, than any year of his career.

The Cain contract is also good news for Giants fans because it demonstrates that the franchise is interested in building a consistently winning team and keeping together an extremely impressive collection of home grown pitching talent. The Giants pitching talent is so good that over the last few years Cain, who would be the ace of many pitching staffs, has been the second best right handed starter on the Giants behind two time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. Lincecum has also been the more colorful of the two with his long hair, funky delivery and eloquence presenting a contrast with the more staid and conventional seeming Cain. Lefty Madison Bumgarner is younger than either Cain or Lincecum and gives the Giants yet another home grown potential ace.

Signing Cain is a commitment to winning that will make staying in San Francisco more appealing for Lincecum, who can become a free agent after the 2013 season. It is also a move that allows the Giants some insurance regarding Lincecum. While the Giants will need to commit even more money to Lincecum to secure his future with the team if he continues to be an elite pitcher over the next two years. On the other hand, if the Giants’ ace has an off year or a serious injury, having Cain greatly strengthens their bargaining position with Lincecum.

Cain’s contract is only the second contract worth more than $100 million ever given to a Giant and the first given by the team to a player produced by their own farm system. The other player to receive a contract of comparable value was Barry Zito who has been a tremendous disappointment, but Cain and Zito, and their contracts, are not comparable. At the time he signed, Zito was slightly older than Cain is now, but more importantly was already in significant decline from his peak years of 2003 and 2004.

By signing Cain the Giants have both put a down payment down on maintaining one of baseball’s best starting rotations and shown a willingness to invest in home grown talent and accept some risk. The Cain contract is not without risk; no contract is. However, Cain has, both on and off the field, shown that he is about as low risk as a pitcher can be. Had the Giants lost Cain to free agency, particularly if he had signed with their arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers as some rumors last week had suggested, it would have raised the question of what a player would have to do to be retained by the Giants’ ownership. Fortunately, this question is now off the table, and Matt Cain is still wearing the orange and black.