Not to be outdone by Tim Lincecum's complete game on Friday, Matt Cain threw one of his own two days later in a 7-1 victory that capped off a sweep of the Oakland A's in style. After giving up a first inning home run to Jack Cust, Cain threw eight innings of three-hit ball the rest of the way. In the ninth, Cain was still sharp, retiring Cust and Matt Holliday before striking out Jason Giambi to end the game.
Although Randy Johnson has pitched after Tim Lincecum for most of the season, Cain has proven to be the true No. 2 starter for the Giants in 2009.
Despite his gaudy record this year, Cain has traditionally been a poster boy for why the Giants need more hitting. He lost two-thirds of his decisions from 2007 to 2008. In 2007, he endured sixteen losses despite an ERA that would have ranked him as the top pitcher on half of the team in the major leagues.
This year, Cain has had increased run support, but has also posted a career-low in ERA. In fact, his ERA of 2.55 is fourth in the National League, slightly ahead of the 2.66 Lincecum has posted.
Cain is tied with Chad Billingsley for the NL wins lead (Cain has started one fewer game than Billingsley and has two fewer losses), and although he won't threaten for the strikeout crown like Lincecum will, Cain has struck out a respectable 68 batters on the season, good enough for 15th in the National League. His WHIP of 1.28 also ranks 15th.
Cain has had issues with walks, which helps to account for his high opponent's OBP (.331—a career high). And his opponent's BA (.254) is at a career high as well.
But his pitches per inning in 2009 (16.1) is at career low.
Cain is estimated to have a value of $4.6 million so far this season, on pace for around $14-15 million. By comparison, Lincecum's Cy Young season was valued at around $32 million.
So does this mean that Cain is half the pitcher Lincecum is? Maybe, since Lincecum's strikeout-to-walk ratio has increased from around three last season to around four this year, while some of Cain's important stats have become worse over the last few years.
For a stats perspective, it looks like Cain is getting somewhat lucky this season (not that he doesn't deserve it after the last few years he's endured), and might have peaked as a player. But that doesn't mean he isn't valuable to the organization, and should be traded for a thirty-something bat.
Even if the temptation is there to trade for hitting to stay in the Wild Card, it would be a mistake to get rid of Cain for a bat, even though he would command much more than Jonathan Sanchez. With Cain out of the rotation, an inexperienced pitcher (Kevin Pucetas?) or a pitcher not deemed to be worthy of a spot at the beginning of the season could be promoted into the major league rotation. This might negate the effect of a big bat, who could be walked anyway.
The odds of Pucetas or even Madison Bumgarner replacing Cain's production this season are not large. Bumgarner, who is more talented than Pucetas and has the potential to surpass Cain's production within a year or two in the big leagues, has never pitched beyond the AA level.
David Price provided a precedent last year for rapid promotion of a pitcher into a pressure situation, but Price was a college pitcher, and was used in relief. This year, he started the season in AAA before hearing the call to start at the big league level. Even Lincecum, after rocketing through the minors, had an ERA around 4.00 in his first season in the big leagues. Bumgarner will be twenty in August, two years younger than Price.
Next year, Randy Johnson will no longer be in the rotation and, unfortunately, Noah Lowry's injury-marred tenure with the Giants appears to be over. Tim Alderson and Bumgarner will eventually fill those two slots in the rotation, but a Cain trade would break a future rotation in which Matt would potentially be fourth.
The best Cain trade scenarios for the Giants might be to acquire two decent major league hitters (hopefully with power) or two or more prospects (one hitting, one pitching). But this assumes that Cain is being sold at his peak value. If Cain doesn't decline over the next few years, there's little reason not to keep him while he's signed fairly cheaply. In 2007, the Giants believed enough in Cain to sign him to an extension. Unless the deal is decidedly in the Giants' favor, Brian Sabean should think twice, especially after the A.J. Pierzynski deal and the Lincecum-For-Rios near-fiasco.
Jonathan Sanchez, on the other hand, is above the league average in ERA and WHIP. He could probably be replaced by a AAA pitcher or a top prospect like Bumgarner, and the Giants wouldn't suffer than greatly. Sanchez could be valuable as a reliever, even if he was eventually replaced in the rotation by Bumgarner or Pucetas). But if the Giants could get a bat with him, even if it's a flawed one, it might be worth it.
San Francisco's glory years were highlighted by great hitters, as well as solid pitching. But the two most recent World Series teams featured fearsome pairs of power hitters (Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell in 1989, and Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in 2002). Instead of intimidating power hitters, the 2009 Giants have the potential for a dominant rotation. Unlike Sanchez, Cain could potentially play a significant role in that rotation.
Not many third or fourth starters on any rotation in the league can match Cain's stuff, and he's young enough to not only contribute in 2009 alongside Lincecum, but in the future with Bumgarner and Alderson. Cain may not be a superstar, but he should still have a firm place in the Giants' rotation, not on the trading block.