Right Time To Raise...er, Call Up Cain

Heavily hyped prospects have come and gone for the Giants over the years. Maybe five years from now, Matt Cain will just be another name alongside Salomon Torres and Kurt Ainsworth. But then again, maybe not. But the highly touted prospect is finally here, and the Giants couldn't have picked a better time to introduce him to the fans.

A lot has been discussed about Matt Cain by San Francisco Giant fans lately. In a season devoid of good news and a plethora of disappointment, “Bring Up The Kids” has been a common cry since as early as May. And though the playoffs somehow have never gotten out of reach for the Giants, even now, some of the most heated debate has been over the Giants’ decision to leave perhaps their most prized prospect in the minors during what many consider a lost year.

Well, the Giants have finally brought up the gem of their system, and many fans are muttering “Not a moment too soon” under their breath. But the truth is that the Giants found the perfect time to introduce him to the big leagues.

Cain has struggled in AAA this season, especially early in the year. As one of the worst hitters’ leagues in all the minors, the Pacific Coast League has taken many a pitching prospect and chewed them up. Cain’s problems were pretty simple. His walk rate spiked, going from a career average of 3.29 walks per 9 innings before 2005 to 4.51 this year, and at times it reached nearly 6. Also, while he didn’t give up many more hits than in the rest of his career (7,29 per 9 IP in 2005 compared to a career average of 7.18), the hits he was giving up were much bigger. Before the callup, Cain had given up 22 home runs, a league high, and a rate of 1.36 per 9 IP, more than double his career average of 0.64.

These struggles led to a career high 4.39 ERA over the 2005 season, and for the first time bringing up some doubts about his status as a top prospect.

The pitcher he was most often compared to, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, also had a spike in walks, but seemed untouched by the home run problem, and had carried a 2.25 ERA in the PCL before an early August promotion to the bigs. Hernandez’s success in the majors (a 1.75 ERA through his first 5 starts) put more pressure on the Giants to make a decision about Cain.

The news hadn’t been entirely bad for Cain, however. He still had his prodigious strikeout rate, one of the most relied upon indicators of a pitching prospect. Cain had 176 strikeouts in 145.2 IP, also leading the league and setting a Fresno single season record. The 10.87 K/9IP rate is even higher than his career rate of 9.68.

So why now for Cain? Why not earlier, or why not wait until the rosters expand in less than a week, or the PCL season ends in the first week of September?

Well, as for why not earlier, the decision was mostly a factor of Cain’s struggles. But it also had to do with a little known caveat in the collective bargaining agreement known as the ‘Super 2’ exception. Normally, players are paid the league minimum until they have 3 years or more of major league experience under their belts. From years 3 to 6, they are what is known as ‘arbitration eligible’, where the team still has rights to them, but a player can boost his salary and ask for an arbiter to help determine a fair price for his services. After 6 years, a player becomes a free agent.

The ‘Super 2’ exception says that, each year, amongst players who have more than 2 years of MLB experience and less than 3, the top 17% of those players qualify for arbitration ahead of time. Generally, that carries over so that they are eligible for free agency in their 5th year of service, a year earlier than normal.

Keep in mind that ‘years of MLB experience’ doesn’t mean each different calendar year a player appears in the bigs. Service time is measured by each day a player is on the 25 man roster, so a player may have played in three different years, but still have less than a month of service time if he only appeared for a week at a time.

Now, obviously, if a team has a hot property on their hands like a pitcher like Cain, they wouldn’t want him getting more expensive earlier, or becoming a free agent sooner. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to predict when the cutoff line for the Top 17% of service time for players of Cain’s class will be, so it ultimately comes down to playing the odds. The earlier he’s brought up in a season, the more likely he’ll fall into that select ‘Super 2’ group. But the later in the year it gets, particularly close to September, the less likely the chances are. At this point, it’s almost a non-issue.

So why now, and not wait for the PCL season to finish or for the rosters to expand to 40, less than a week from now and only 3 days after Cain’s scheduled debut? Simply, because the timing was perfect.

For one, Cain’s last start was the same day as Brett Tomko, who the Giants were ready to demote to the bullpen again. Thus, bringing up Cain to replace Tomko put the start right in Cain’s normal schedule for starting.

But the timing was right as well, in that Cain has been hot recently. In his last PCL start, Cain went 6 shutout innings, giving up just 4 hits and a walk while striking out 7. In his last 4 starts, Cain was 2-0, having a 3.28 ERA in 24.2 IP, striking out 31 while walking only 6. Cain had gone over a month since taking a loss, winning his last 5 decisions. He was on a roll, and had just finished his best start since giving up just 1 hit and 1 walk while striking out 10 against Las Vegas on April 28th.

The last variable was his competition, which made this the perfect opportunity for Cain to make his debut. He is, of course, facing the Colorado Rockies, the worst team in the National League, and only the 10th best offense in the NL in terms of run scoring even playing in Coors Field. On the road, the Rockies are dead last in almost every statistical category, from runs scored (195, 58 runs less than 2nd to last place Philly), to batting average (.230) to slugging percentage (.363).

In trying to avoid a letdown on a first impression, be it the fans and media with the Giants’ greatest hope for the future, or for Cain in his first taste of the bigs, there simply is no weaker team in a weaker situation that he could face.

All this comes together for a perfect situation for Cain to debut under. The fans have had their collective appetite whet for this like Pavlov’s dogs in a cuckoo clock shop at noon, and Cain has a relative AAA team to beat up on to try and give his confidence a boost as he starts his big league career.

This column could close with any number of ‘Raising Cain’ or ‘is Cain Abel?’ jokes or puns. But here’s to hoping, for the Giants’ sake, that Cain’s career neither opens nor closes as a joke.

Love me, hate me, idolize me, or laugh at me, just don't ignore me. Let me know what you think: write me at kevin@ugcfilms.com .

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