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Why You Cannot, Yes You, And You Too, Have Matt Cain.

February 20, 2011

Having reached the “bored and restless but still too sick to do much of anything that requires going further than about ten yards from my bed” stage of Flumageddon 2011, it seemed as good a time as any to try and be at least marginally productive and slog through my backlog of Google alerts.  I have to admit that for all that I spend a lot of time scrolling past stuff I have no interest in reading, those alerts do periodically drop some interesting tidbits in my lap from corners of the blogosphere that I would never venture to unbidden.  This was one such item.  (Warning: Link goes to a Yankees blog, for those of you who may find this morally distasteful.)

Short version, if you may not want to go read that post either because it requires venturing to an AL East infested corner of the vast web of tubes or simply because it’s too many words and you’d rather read mine without having to do homework: if Sabes called Cashman and offered a straight trade of Matt Cain for Robinson Cano, the Yanks should consider it because they could sorely use the pitching and Cain is undervalued, but they shouldn’t actually do it because Cano is too valuable offensively and is a young and much-needed member of the franchise.  There’s obviously more to it than that, but that’s the gist.  I could get into why 1) Sabes would be stupider than I would ever have given him credit for on the WORST day of his tenure to offer that deal and 2) the Yankees would certainly be getting the better end, given their need for pitching versus the Giants’ need for infield depth and offense, but this is just the latest incidence of the “Matt Cain Trade Love Connection Dating Game” that has been being played all around the blogs and rumor sites all off-season.

It stands to reason that our pitching staff is a hot trade rumor target, especially after besting the Phillies rotation and Cliff Lee in the post-season, but Cain is the one getting talked about in trade rumors, and even that isn’t necessarily surprising.  Lincecum is the ace, the golden child, the present and future of the franchise that anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows would never get traded for anything short of half the Phillies rotation and bags and bags of gold.  Bumgarner is the likely future of the rotation and way too young for the Giants to consider trading, again, for anything short of the GDP of a small country.  Sanchez is generally regarded (not by us, mind) as just another wild lefty, Oliver Perez in sheep’s clothing, if you will.  It pretty much leaves Big Sugar Cain, the reliable, easy-going, quietly fierce number two as the go-to source of trade-bating.

The idea of Cainer traded off engenders two reactions in yours truly — totally irrational horror and totally rational indignation.  The irrational horror is something along the lines of “but Matty is OURS and what will we do without the ‘FRO and who will go hunting with Bum NOOOOO!”  Like I said, irrational.  But the rational indignation is actually pretty justified for a couple of reasons.

Have you looked at what the FA starters are going to look like in the next year or two?  Not a lot.  Roy Oswalt and C.J. Wilson are the only two on the list of potential 2012 FA starting pitchers that I’d even consider as replacement level compared to Cain, and Oswalt has been talking up retiring when his current deal with the Phils is up.  Alternatively, we could try and fill in the back of the rotation with someone currently in the minors, except not really.  There’s some great talent coming up in the ranks, particularly Zack Wheeler and Eric Surkamp if we’re looking at the guys who look to be the first ready for a call up, and there’s the potential of Ryan Verdugo being stretched out to start, but no one who can be counted on at this point to be ready that soon.  Are there “oh god oh god we’re all going to die” disaster preparedness plans?  Sure.  Any of the three above could spot start if they had to.  But that’s not enough of a plan to back up trading away your number two starter.  This is also optimistically assuming that no one gets hurt and Zito doesn’t nose dive worse than he has before.  That’s way too many ifs for my taste.

Even still, assuming that if Cain were to be traded it would be for a middle or even utility infielder, since there’s no reason to add to the outfield roster at this point, it would have to be for someone who was demonstrably better enough than any combination of Sanchez/Tejada/DeRosa/Fontenot/Burriss/Crawford/Adrianza/Culberson that it would justify the hole it would leave in the pitching rotation.  Which means A LOT better.  We’re talking Scutaro/Hardy better at least.  Maybe not even then.  I have a deep and abiding love for J.J. Hardy and I wouldn’t take him for Cain.  We’ve got an emergingly excellent second baseman in Freddy Sanchez and a solid prospect in Charlie Culberson, an at least serviceable shortstop in Tejada and a couple of solid prospects in Crawford and Adrianza, and backup utility guys in DeRosa and Fontenot.  I’m not saying that I’m in love with every single person on that list, but what I am saying is that every person on that list is tolerable enough in their position that getting a better replacement for them at the cost of Matt Cain would accomplish nothing.

I’m deeply suspicious of the reliability of pitcher fWAR, but I’ll bite my tongue on that particular argument for a minute to illustrate my point.  Cano posted a 6.4 fWAR in 2010.  J.J. Hardy and Marco Scutaro, both potential 2012 free agents, 2.4 and 2.1 respectively.  Stephen Drew, another one I’ve heard bandied about as someone the Giants should go after, was at 5.1.  Matt Cain was at 4.0 and, more importantly, you’d be hard pressed to find another starter in that range that we’d be able to get to replace him.  This is also assuming that you accept 4.0 as an accurate fWAR, which is a post unto itself but let’s just say that no, I do not accept that.

While I understand other teams find the idea of acquiring Matt Cain incredibly appealing — consistent, beast-level pitching from an undervalued guy without much age on him — the reverse is just not true.  Cain’s appeal for teams contemplating acquiring him is in the fact that he’s a Cy Young quality pitcher without the Cy Young to prove it and demand the attendant money, and that is exactly the reason we can’t afford to let him go.  For the time being, we can be as certain as the day is long of what we’ll get when Cainer takes the mound, but as long as popular opinion continues to undervalue him, even thinking about trading him is a sell-low scenario that would needlessly shoot the franchise’s growth in the foot.

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