Let's get something clear right off the bat—I'm not advocating that the San Francisco Giants trade Matt Cain in the 2010-11 MLB offseason. I'm not even suggesting they should consider doing so.
The Kid has been the Giants' most consistent pitcher for years, and he's been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball for the same duration. Though Tim Lincecum is unquestionably the staff ace and justifiably dominates the limelight, his right-handed stablemate is only a nose behind him.
What Cainer lacks in pure filth when compared to the Freak, he compensates for almost completely with mental impregnability.
Despite the sizable public perception gap, the actual difference in team import between the two aces is much narrower. Should anyone still doubt this fact, he or she need only reference the Gents' 2010 World Series championship campaign.
The squad probably doesn't even make the playoffs without its longest-tenured member thanks to Lincecum's struggles in May (4.95 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) and August (7.82 ERA, 1.82 WHIP). While the Franchise was wallowing in the misery of decreased velocity and lost command, Cain was at his best—he posted a 1.81 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in May, then followed it up with a 3.00 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in August.
Remember, Los Gigantes needed a win in Game 162 to survive the regular season and San Diego Padres by a razor-thin, two-game edge in the National League West. So the margin for error was equally slim.
Oh, and speaking of the postseason, not even Tim Lincecum was better.
In fact, neither Christy Mathewson nor Carl Hubbell—nor any pitcher in the time-worn history of the Show—can look down upon Big Game Cain's performance in October (OK, maybe Big Six can). That's because the youngster from Alabama was virtually perfect—2-0, 21.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, seven walks, 13 strikeouts and only one extra-base hit (the miracle double to Ian Kinsler in Game 2 of the Fall Classic).
Nope, San Francisco has a handful of untouchables as far as trade chips go, and Matt Cain is most certainly one of those.
But therein lies the fun.
Just imagine what the franchise could demand in return for such a priceless commodity—this is a 26-year-old with successful postseason experience under his belt and off his back. Furthermore, he's shown consistent improvement from each of his five full seasons to the next.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the hypothetical bounty Matt Cain could fetch.
And note, the acquisition of Miguel Tejada changes none of what follows.
At $6.5 million for one year, I'm intrigued by the Miggy signing. But he'd still take a reserve role to the guys on this list. On with it.
Upon further review, I think you'd have to chuck Jake Arrieta or Chris Tillman.
Neither right-hander had a year to write home about in 2010, but Arrieta is only 24 and Tillman is only 22. Additionally, they give new definition to the phrase "baptism by fire," considering the gauntlet they had to walk in the AL East.
Furthermore, the inclusion of southpaw wunderkind Brian Matusz makes the cost to the O's too absurd to even suggest.
Yet something else would be needed in addition to the two talented outfielders.
No disrespect to either Markakis or Jones, but they aren't superstars quite yet, and the athletes in the big green don't carry the same premium as infielders. It might seem that way to Giant fans, but even San Francisco blundered into a pretty exquisite model (Andres Torres) by basically luck.
Ergo, the 25-year-old MLB Pacman and the 27-year-old Nick the Stick would need a side dish to convince the Gents to part with Matt Cain.
Both are excellent; neither's game is unassailable, as Jones hasn't been improving as quickly as hoped, while Markakis' power seems to have stalled. Not major flaws, but significant enough to make the pair too much of a risk to sacrifice Big Game Cain without another concession.
Admittedly, this is the most far-fetched of these imaginary trades for a couple reasons.
First, the organizational arrogance in Boston probably believes it has the two best young arms in baseball. Given the exploits of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz in the fiery forges of the American League East, the line of thought is not without its merits.
Second, Clay is only 26 himself and is coming off his best season, despite throwing 80 more innings than his previous career high. In other words, there's little reason for one of the wealthiest organizations in baseball to be moving one of its brightest shooting stars—for any return.
Nevertheless, the good feelings around Ellsbury have apparently disintegrated.
Although public posturing has Jacoby and the club all lovey-dovey again, there's at least some reason to think the Sawks might be looking to move the water bug who would otherwise be atop their lineup. When healthy, the 27-year-old speedster is one of the most disruptive blurs in the game.
But the health concerns would require another blue chip to pry Cainer away from The City.
Some might argue Tejada would clear up the issues at shortstop, and they could be right. For a year or two.
Let's be honest, folks. Miguel is at least 36 (coming from the D.R., that's a minimum instead of a rock-solid number), and his resume has scorch marks from the sear of the steroid controversy So whether it's mid-2011, 2012 or 2013, San Francisco's slow dance with issues at short isn't over.
Enter Starlin Castro—the first Big Leaguer to be born in the 1990s (again, as long as his Dominican documents can be trusted).
Castro will only be 21 when his birthday rolls around in March, yet the tyke burst from the gates in 2010. We all remember his historic debut (2-for-5, 3B, HR, 6 RBI), and while the rest of his campaign didn't go quite so swimmingly, he still finished hitting .300 with 31 doubles.
That's the good.
The bad is his glove—all the talent is there, but he's very close to being a liability on the diamond at this stage in his career.
Which accounts for the presence of Big Z.
Sometimes you have a square peg in a round hole, and that's quite possibly the case with Carlos in Chicago. He seems to genuinely want to be part of the solution rather than the problem, but he simply might not have the temperament to do so when surrounded by such an acute media tenor.
The press is much milder in the Bay Area and might be damn-near catatonic in the wake of a euphoric World Series Championship.
Let's not forget Zambrano has finished in the Top Five of NL Cy Young voting three times and was arguably the best pitcher in baseball down the stretch in September and October—6 GS, 5-0, 41 IP, 1.10 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.3 K/0 and an opponents' slash line of .150/.272/.188.
Given the Cubbies' century-plus of increasing desperation to claim a Fall Classic and their travails with Big Z, they might be willing to part with Starlin's potential if the powers that be think it gives them a substantially improved chance of winning NOW.
And Matty Cain certainly represents that.
Here is the first of the few one-for-one deals that I'd be OK with making were I Brian Sabean and forced to move Matt Cain.
Votto is coming off a stellar season that saw him win the National League Most Valuable Player, so his value has never been higher. A year in which an already excellent player sets career highs in every major offensive category except doubles and triples will do that to a fella—Joey authored a slash line of .324/.424/.600, 106 R, 36 2B, 2 3B, 37 HR, 113 RBI, 16 SB, 5 CS, and 125 SO.
The 27-year-old Canadian is making quite an entrance to the prime of his career.
Nevertheless, the Redlegs got a more intimate perspective than most of the necessity of dominant starting pitching in the playoffs when they got no-hit by Roy Halladay—and then further throttled by Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in the NL Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
With offense to burn, the first baseman might not be beyond the pale of acquisition. For the right price.
Though Cainer's flyball tendencies wouldn't be ideal in the Great American Bandbox, his career splits diminish such concerns.
Our second and penultimate one-for-one deal involves a second Miguel...Cabrera this time.
It's easy to lose perspective when it comes to Cabrera because he was so good immediately upon his arrival in the Show. As a 20-year-old newbie, the Venezuelan first baseman (playing left field and third base at the time) burst on the scene with a .793 OPS and 62 runs batted in despite only 346 plate appearances.
That was in 2003.
In all seven seasons since then Cabrera has plated over 100 runs and launched at least 26 bombs while generally hitting .320 or better (he only fell short of the mark twice). What's more, the big fella's hit a minimum of 33 big flies in six of those years, and he's beginning to take walks at a rate that should terrify opposing pitchers.
Top the heap o' good off with his recent dedication to the clean life with his age, and we might be about to see a totally different beast out of Miguel Cabrera.
Of course, if it took Matt Cain to get said beast into orange and black, it had better be ferocious.
There are only a handful of players for whom I'd trade Matt Cain straight up, and Hanley Ramirez is the second one to make this list.
Han-Ram will turn 27 in December and yet has already established himself as the hands-down best shortstop in Major League Baseball. If not for his tepid behavioral problems and skin-flinty organization, I'd consider the Dominican dynamo the most untouchable player in the Show.
As is, his 162-game averages still put him out of reach of all but the longest and more reliable arms—a slash line of .313/.385/.520, 120 R, 42 2B, 5 3B, 26 HR, 83 RBI, 42 SB, 13 CS, and 115 SO.
Let's pause here to emphasize that those nausea-inducing numbers for non-Marlin fans come from a pre-power-prime SHORTSTOP.
Sweet sassy molassy.
Trading the Giants' most tenured player would be painful, but doing so to fix the team's most tenured problem (SS) would ease some of the agony.
I'll go on the record as saying I'm not overly impressed with Cecil's kid.
His prodigious power is very much that, but that's where the story starts losing its hold on me. The 26-year-old's career average (.279) ain't all that and a bag of chips, plus he whiffs WAY too much for my taste (162-game average of 130 K). Further complicating the picture is a home field in Miller Park that is drenched in kerosene and a weight issue that probably will never be completely put to rest.
However, Fielder's career on-base percentage (.385) is startlingly good and his walk totals have been on the steady climb. So there's a chance I'm being too biased.
Regardless, the Giants brass would certainly require and be able to get more than simply Prince Fielder in return for Matt Cain.
As far as extra pieces go, the young shortstop isn't a bad option.
Escobar has been uncomfortably anemic with the lumber and needs work on defense, but his toolbox runneth over. It's only a matter of putting his considerable skills together; that's easier said than done, but he turns 24 in December and only has one full season under his belt.
Given the right environment and steady playing time, there's plenty of time for Alcides to blossom into the stud many projected him to be.
Call this a nostalgia deal.
Liriano has been taunting Giant fans as the million-dollar talent who got traded away in favor of the periodic kick to the groin otherwise known as A.J. Pierzynski. So it would be a juicy bit of circular irony if the hot-and-cold southpaw completed the round trip as part of yet another multi-player swap.
OK, with the cutesy stuff taken care of, let's turn to brass tacks.
As good as Francisco can be, he's not yet rekindled the blinding brilliance that made Brian Sabean's name a four-letter word around the Bay Area in 2006. In fact, he's been downright maddening to watch closely if you had a vested interest in him (say, if he was on your fantasy team).
One minute, it's the vintage and unhittable look. The next, it's death by a thousand walks or meatballs hanging out over the plate. Granted, it was much more of the good than the bad or ugly in 2010, but Liriano still has a few kinks to iron out before he can be safely placed back on the top shelf.
The same goes for Young, except Delmon is still working toward his first top-shelf placement.
After a sudden and quietly fantastic '10 season, Dmitri's younger brother is very close.
The 25-year-old outfielder re-wrote his personal record books, setting career highs in doubles (46), home runs (21), runs batted in (112), batting average over a full season (.298), slugging percentage (.493), on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.826), strikeouts in a full season (81) and sacrifice flies (nine). It's no wonder he placed 10th in AL MVP voting, though it may be news to most people.
His enigmatic past is enough reasonable doubt, however, to hold off on the "he's arrived" label.
Therefore, the Twinkies, who tend toward the conservative approach anyway, might be inclined to barter two tremendous upsides for one tried-true-and-terrific reality.
Rumor has it that the Metropolitans are actively shopping Jose Reyes, but they want to be blown away before parting with the speedy yet injury prone shortstop.
Combine that with the almost total void in the rotation thanks to Johan Santana's season-ending arm woes, and you've got the perfect opportunity to take out two birds with one stone. New York's Senior Circuit rep wasn't exactly bumping up against the 1971 Baltimore Orioles in the record books, and the 2011 version might be missing the former Cy Young for a week or a month or even longer.
Consequently, a dangling Matt Cain would prove too tantalizing to pass up, considering Citi Field shares many dimensional characteristics with AT&T Park.
So attractive, in fact, that SF could pry the up-and-coming first baseman (Davis) in addition to Reyes.
The 23-year-old has his peaks and valleys, but he showed good power despite the cavernous home yard and made an impression on defense as well. He's no lock, but I'm intrigued by any rook who can handle the harsh lighting of the Big Apple.
Reyes would obviously be the linchpin—162-game averages of a .286/.335/.434 slash line, 111 R, 33 2B, 15 3B, 13 HR, 66 RBI, 58 SB, 15 CS and 82 SO—but the 27-year-old missed a ton of time over the last two years with leg injuries and one of those scary glandular maladies.
That's enough to give any suitor pause.
If you think that looks like a king's ransom, you're right.
It absolutely is.
What's more, I was going to add Julio Borbon to the price but decided against it since the Ballpark at Arlington is a bandbox with carry. Considering Matt Cain is a flyball pitcher, well, the fit isn't perfect.
But Cainer is the type of stud who will translate to any ballpark so the cost would still be steep.
And Andrus plus Kinsler is about an 80 percent grade.
Ian's 162-game averages are pretty gnarly—a slash line of .281/.356/.466, 115 R, 37 2B, 3 3B, 24 HR, 83 RBI, 28 SB, 5 CS and 57 SO. Those are blinding numbers even before you toss in that he plays the keystone. At 28, he is arguably the best second sacker in the game...when on the field.
His frailty, however, is what puts the tarnish on this gem. In five seasons, Kinsler has never played more than 144 contests and averages about 123. It seems you will lose his services for at least one extended stretch before the season is over.
Additionally, the Rangers' dynamo is a bit redundant since Freddy Sanchez's days at third base might be behind him.
Which brings us to 22-year-old shortstop.
San Francisco fans saw his ability to influence the game in all facets—with the bat, glove, arms and legs.
Though you don't need shades to look at his offensive numbers (yet), the potential is about a nanometer from the surface. Defensively, it's already arrived—dude is slick with the leather, has a cannon and covers plenty of ground.
Sure, he makes a few too many errors; they're worth it considering the state of the Giants at short (moment of silence for the passing of Juan Uribe; don't know who that guy signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers is).
With Cliff Lee almost assuredly heading to the Bronx this offseason, there's no time like the panicked present.