There’s no argument: Sign Cain
Thursday, March 29
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Giants must lock up Matt Cain contractually. Period. This is beyond argument, like the virtues of dental hygiene, regular auto maintenance and the iPod. No further discussion is necessary.
We’ll discuss the issue anyway, since Giants ownership apparently needs some encouragement to act. The Giants might not realize how much they’ll miss Cain until he’s gone. So don’t let him leave. Give him the “fair value” that he wants to prevent him from becoming a free agent after this season. It’s that simple.
Managers and baseball executives drone endlessly about the value of starting pitchers who give their team a chance to win just by showing up for work on the days they pitch. Cain’s an established member of this select group. So is Tim Lincecum. And Madison Bumgarner appears poised to join the club. But Cain, the longest-tenured player among the current Giants, has maintained his steadiness longer than any San Francisco pitcher in decades. Despite being only 27, he has started 203 games, a figure eclipsed by only six Giants since the franchise moved West in 1958: Hall of Famers Juan Marichal (446 starts) and Gaylord Perry (283), the dependable Kirk Rueter (277), 1967 National League Cy Young Award winner Mike McCormick (245), the underrated Jim Barr (220) and old-school workhorse Jack Sanford (211). With the exception of Rueter, none of these men played for the Giants after 1983. In other words, disregard Cain’s 69-73 record. Pitchers like him don’t come around very often.
One of the best ways to measure Cain’s value is to consider when he didn’t give the Giants a chance to win. Being aberrations, they’re strangely easier to remember than many of Cain’s successes. Let’s see: He began 2006, his first full Major League season, with a 1-5 record and a 7.04 ERA after seven appearances. He convalesced in the bullpen for one game (a perfect two-inning stint at Houston) before one-hitting the A’s. So much for that slump. Then there was the 2008 home opener, which he lost to Greg Maddux and the Padres as he allowed five runs and seven hits and walked five in 4 1/3 innings. Another rare dud occurred on the final Friday of the regular season, when the Giants needed one victory over San Diego to clinch the National League West. Cain was shockingly ineffective against the Padres, allowing all six of their runs and nine hits in four innings. Cain recovered nicely by throwing 21 1/3 innings in the subsequent postseason without yielding an earned run.
Obviously, Cain has endured other subpar starts. But you get the point. They’re difficult to remember, largely because so few exist on his ledger. Typically, he’s a consummate competitor who makes the Giants competitive with him. Cain tends to get overlooked alongside Lincecum’s charismatic brilliance. This does not diminish Cain’s stature in the least. He’s content to be exactly who and what he is. “Here it is — go ahead and try to hit it,” he seems to say with each pitch. It’s a classically aggressive approach that works. Proof: Cain is among seven pitchers who have reached or exceeded 200 innings for five consecutive seasons. Mark Buehrle, Dan Haren, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, James Shields and Justin Verlander are the others. Also, according to statistician Bill Chuck, Cain, Halladay, Cliff Lee and Jered Weaver are the only starters to finish
each of the previous two seasons with a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.1 or below.
Fans understand Cain’s significance. That’s why they demanded an accord with Cain during an online chat with Giants president and CEO Larry Baer on Thursday. Some of the fans used coarse language to accentuate their sense of urgency. They see the sellout crowds at AT&T Park and reason that the club can easily afford to extend Cain’s contract, which could cost at least $20 million annually. The franchise’s economics are much more complex than that. Still, if Cain isn’t retained, it’s easy to imagine that those sellouts will occur a little less frequently.
The Giants might not create new batches of fans if they keep Cain. But they could lose an appreciable number of them if he departs. Cain has become an essential component of the Giants’ identity: Pitching excellence. Imagine the void that would be created by the departure of Cain and Lincecum, who’ll be a free agent after his two-year contract expires. Should this be coupled with the failure of the Giants’ position-player prospects to blossom, they’d unravel into a truly sorry franchise. Don’t scoff. It happened before. Observers of a certain age recall the dismal span from Nov. 29, 1971 to Dec. 7, 1973, when the Giants jettisoned (in order) Perry, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Marichal. Granted, with the exception of Perry, who won 180 games after leaving San Francisco, these stalwarts were far past their peak effectiveness. But those guys were the Giants. Nearly a half-decade passed before the organization regained a semblance of equilibrium.
Choose your own metaphor or simile to define the importance of Cain and Lincecum to the Giants. You might think they’re like the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lennon and McCartney or Boardwalk and Park Place. Or you can employ plain English: They make San Francisco the envy of almost all of the 29 other Major League clubs. Together, they’re definitely Giant, as the club’s marketing gurus might say. Step One for the club in maintaining its little slice of superiority is handing Cain an oversized but legitimately earned contract. The time is now.
– Chris Haft