Lorenzo Cain just signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Brewers -- a deal mostly seen as fair overall. The Mets had largely silenced any rumors of a union with Cain with the signing of Jay Bruce earlier this month, but the reasonable terms of Cain's contract raise the question of whether he would have been the better fit.
Cain represents something the Mets haven't had on the team in some time -- a starting center fielder in his natural position. While Juan Lagares is one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, he is not viewed as a starting-caliber player, and so the team has made due with reasonably athletic corner outfielders, from Yoenis Cespedes to Michael Conforto, both of whom more than account for the defensive deficiencies with strong bats.
But the value of a true center fielder is significant. Not only does the defense in center improve, but an uptick in the run-prevention from the corners usually happens as well. Cain, the fourth-best centerfielder in baseball since 2015 by both defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, would have undoubtedly tightened up the outfield in an era of ever-increasing fly balls.
And Cain isn't a one-way player. He is not a slugger by any means, but provides modestly above-average offense from a premium position, and that is not easy to find. In particular, his .345 career on base percentage (.363 in 2017) would have allowed him to slot into the leadoff position for a Mets team that has been trying and failing to fill that hole for several years.
While Bruce has the stronger bat overall, he lacks the added dimension of getting on base that the Mets are in need of, and he doesn't resolve their defensive concerns in the outfield. What he did offer, and certainly a strong reason the Mets decided to sign him rather than pursuing Cain, is a shorter contract.
Turning 32 years old in April, Cain will be with the Brewers until his age-37 season. Projections of what the back end of those years might look like isn't a particularly pretty sight, with a dwindling bat and diminished durability taking a big chunk out of his productivity. A potential move to a corner spot as he ages could potentially reduce that value further.
That said, this is the reality of signing a player in his 30s, and good teams are structured in a way that allows them to build a lineup that can hide a lesser offensive player for a year or two in exchange for the clear benefits early on. Moreover, Bruce's value at the end of his contract may not be any higher than Cain's at the end of his.
With both players projected to be worth their earnings, ultimately the Mets came down on the side of flexibility, both in years and in average annual value, over fit. Both contracts are fair and Bruce is a talented, likeable player. But as a fan, it does get frustrating to see square pegs continually worked into round holes, especially when a round peg like Cain was there for the taking.
Maggie Wiggin (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Archive Posts) has been a Mets fan since birth and a MetsBlog contributor since 2013. She loves throwing hard and hitting hard and hates the DH. When baseball is out of season, she fills her days with data analysis and evaluation and patiently waits for Spring