October 22, 2008

Young for Cain?

Last week both Sid Hartman and Charley Walters had notes in their columns about the Twins likely shopping Delmon Young this offseason, which is a coincidence that led me to speculate that "you can be fairly certain that information is purposely being made public by someone from the Twins." Walters specifically mentioned that San Francisco might be interested in Young and Giants beat writer Chris Haft addressed a question on MLB.com this week about the team's potential pursuit of Young:

My understanding is that the Twins covet [Matt] Cain and would be willing to relinquish Young for him. But it's unlikely that the Giants would make that deal, one for one.

Not so long ago the Giants sent Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser to the Twins for one season of A.J. Pierzynski, but even considering that expecting them to give up Matt Cain for Young is a bit much. Young starting pitching is pretty far down on the list of things the Twins need at this point and Cain's career record is an underwhelming 30-43, but his wins and losses are misleading due to horrid run support and if he can be had for a package built around Young they should jump at the deal.

Cain is a 24-year-old former first-round pick who's logged 190-plus innings in each of his first three full seasons in the majors and sports a 3.74 career ERA. His average fastball clocked in at 92.4 miles per hour this season, which ranked as the eighth-fastest in the NL, and he's racked up 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings for his career. He's one of the best, most promising young pitchers in baseball, but may be undervalued after going 7-16 and 8-14 over the past two seasons (with ERAs of 3.65 and 3.74).

Of course, he's not without flaws. Cain's arm already has a ton of mileage on it thanks to debuting as a 20-year-old and being allowed to rack up huge pitch counts since. He topped the 100-pitch mark in 18 of his final 21 starts this year, threw at least 110 pitches a total of 15 times, and had a 126-pitch outing and a 125-pitch outing within a 10-day span in August. Cain has thrown significantly more pitches than he would have as a member of the Twins and is certainly a candidate for future arm problems.

He'll also already be arbitration eligible this winter for the first time, which means that he's beginning to get expensive and has just three seasons remaining until free agency. In other words, in terms of past workload and future cost he's not a typical 24-year-old. Unfortunately, one area where Cain is a typical 24-year-old is control. He's walked 87, 79, and 91 batters in three full seasons in the Giants' rotation, and each of those three walk totals would have been the highest for any Twins pitcher since 1996.

In fact, during seven seasons with Ron Gardenhire as manager and Rick Anderson as pitching coach a Twins pitcher has walked as many as even 55 batters a grand total of just three times (twice for Kyle Lohse and once for Bonser). Twins starters simply don't walk anyone, which seemingly makes Cain a poor fit. On the other hand, he turned 24 years old two weeks ago and if Anderson can somehow mold him into another strike-throwing machine Cain has the raw stuff to be pretty special.

Parting with Matt Garza (and Jason Bartlett) to get Young from the Rays last winter immediately struck me as a mistake, and gradually the early results from the trade have convinced many fans and media members to join me in that belief. Unfortunately his value is likely much lower now than it was when the Twins paid a premium to acquire him less than a year ago, and certainly as a 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick with a .292/.326/.413 hitting line in 344 career games he's not without potential.

However, if the Twins can get their hands on an asset like Cain is exchange for a package built around Young it should be a no-brainer. In fact, in some ways it would reverse the mistake made by dealing Garza while simultaneously lessening the current outfield/designated hitter logjam that has four spots available for Young, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, and Carlos Gomez. Acquiring Cain might create a similar logjam for the rotation, but my guess is that wouldn't be an issue.

Haft's speculation that the Giants wouldn't trade Cain for Young straight up seems fairly obvious and is likely an understatement, so making the deal might require packaging Nick Blackburn or Glen Perkins with Young for Cain and a lesser player. Those scenarios make it a much less appealing deal for the Twins, but that's still a trade they should consider. Perkins and Blackburn are both solid, inexpensive starters, but they're also both several years older than Cain and have relatively limited upsides.

Ideally the Twins could hold onto Young, keep the rotation intact, lessen the outfield logjam, and still be able to address other needs by trading Cuddyer, but between his age, contract, injuries, and declining performance that may be a tough sell. Dealing Young is the next-best option, and unlike Cuddyer his trade value may still be high enough to fetch a nice return. Similarly, they have enough rotation depth to part with Perkins or Blackburn if that's what it takes to turn Young into a better building block like Cain.

The lack of speculation about specific trade rumors in this space is intentional and reversing that trend now based on one-liners from Hartman, Walters, and a Q&A session on MLB.com makes me feel sort of silly. However, the larger point is that the Twins appear willing to part with Young after just one year and likely still have the ability to turn him into a player with star potential if they're amenable to giving up Perkins or Blackburn as well.

That may mean going after a young middle infielder or a power-hitting third baseman instead of Cain, but whatever the case the Twins are in a position to turn outfield and rotation depth into a meaningful upgrade elsewhere. Given the Twins' poor choices in free agency trades become hugely important, so whether Cain is the target or someone else is now on the team's radar hopefully general manager Bill Smith's next big deal produces better immediate results than his first two blockbuster swaps.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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