Lutz Blog

Bob Lutz: 10 years after being drafted, Lorenzo Cain coming into his own

Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain robs Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy during the sixth inning of Saturday’s Game 2.
Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain robs Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy during the sixth inning of Saturday’s Game 2. Kansas City Star

Lorenzo Cain has been doing his best Willie Wilson impersonation so far in the postseason for the Kansas City Royals. In some way, his best Willie Mays.

Remember that science project you had to finish in three days back when you were in high school?

The Lorenzo Cain Project has been much more difficult and has taken years.

He was selected in the 17th round of the 2004 MLB draft by the Milwaukee Brewers, who paid Cain $100,000 – high for a 17th-rounder – because they appreciated his immense athletic ability.

Trouble is, Cain hadn’t played much baseball. He didn’t start learning the sport until his junior year at Madison High in Florida, after he was cut by the basketball team. Cain could run and had a powerful body. But his skills were lagging.

That didn’t deter Milwaukee general manager Bob Melvin, who figured some time in the Brewers’ farm system, working on baseball day after day, could potentially make Cain a star.

Cain toiled in the minors for years, amassing nearly 2,500 plate appearances in 728 games. Results were mostly positive. Cain showed an ability to hit and he improved steadily as a defensive player.

Milwaukee was reluctant to include him in a 2010 trade with the Royals, even if right-handed pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke was the big prize.

But Melvin made the trade and Greinke pitched well in Milwaukee, leading the Brewers to the 2011 National League Championship Series.

Cain and young shortstop Alicides Escobar were the main young players who went to Kansas City in the deal, along with pitchers Jake Odirizzi and Jeremy Jeffress.

Escobar, like Cain, was an offensive work in progress. But he could really play shortstop.

Reportedly, the Washington Nationals made a big play for Greinke after the 2010 season, offering infielder Danny Espinosa, catcher Derek Norris, reliever Drew Storen and starter Jordan Zimmermann.

That would have been an incredible haul, as it turns out, but Greinke turned down the trade because he didn’t think the Nationals were close to contending.

Turns out they were. But the Royals’ consolation prize still turned out well.

Nearly four years later, look what the Grienke trade has meant to Kansas City. Cain and Escobar are two of the finest defensive players in baseball and both had productive offensive numbers in 2014.

And Cain, especially, has taken his game to a new level in the postseason, robbing opposing players of hits and going six for eight so far against the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS.

The only thing that could make this better was if Cain was 25. He’s not, he’s 28. But he is under the Royals’ control for three more season, ineligible for free agency until after the 2017 season.

Cain’s breakthrough may have come with the Royals’ Triple-A team in Omaha in 2011. He batted .312 with 16 homers and 81 RBIs that season. He also had an .877 OPS. It was then, I’m sure, that Kansas City knew it had something.

But Cain struggled to find the same success in the big leagues because it has been difficult for him to remain healthy.

Cain had played in only 110 games in the majors before playing in 115 for Kansas City last season. He played in 133 games this season and batted .301 with 29 doubles.

It makes you wonder how dynamic Cain could have been as a baseball player had he started playing earlier. But the cost of playing baseball has made it difficult for many minority children to afford. Opportunities are difficult to find. And baseball, which needs more Lorenzo Cains, has suffered.

Cain flashed tremendous athleticism all along, but it took him much longer than some others to develop his skills. In fact, we’re seeing that happen right before our eyes. Cain is still not a finished product, as his 108 strikeouts and only 24 walks this season indicate. He needs to get on base more so that he can flash his tremendous speed on the base paths.

But the Royals wouldn’t be here without him. He’s been a huge difference maker all season, but particularly in the series against Baltimore, which continues tonight with Game 3 at Kauffman Stadium and the Royals with a chance to go up 3-0.

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