When the Milwaukee Brewers announced last Thursday they had signed outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million deal, two things immediately stood out:
1. In a strange free-agent market moving at glacial speed, someone finally received a contract beyond three years.
2. Cain will turn 32 on April 13.
As much as Cain is expected to boost the Brewers' playoff chances in the next few years, it's reasonable to ask if he will be able to remain productive throughout the life of the contract. It is common for players in their mid-30s to fade, both offensively and defensively, while often battling health issues as well.
The Brewers need look no further than their own Ryan Braun, who turned 34 after a 2017 season in which he was limited to 104 games by a series of maladies, most prominently a strained calf. Braun compiled a solid .823 OPS, but it was far below the .905 norm for his career, and the Brewers plan to see if he can play some first base to ease the outfield logjam created by the signing of Cain and the trade for Christian Yelich.
Upon acquiring the 26-year-old Yelich from Miami, general manager David Stearns made a point of saying how important it was to add a player in the prime of his career. Though Cain is more than five years older, the Brewers think they can make an argument that he, too, is in his prime.
"We spent a lot of time looking at the type of player Lorenzo is, how those skill sets translate as the player ages," Steans said. "We became comfortable that this is a player who is going to be able to perform well into his 30s.
"What is encouraging for us about Lorenzo is he is actually getting better. In his early 30s, he is becoming a better player than he was in his late 20s."
The numbers support that argument. In 2015, at age 29, Cain put together his best season, batting .307 with 16 home runs, 72 runs batted in, an .838 OPS and 28 stolen bases, making the American League all-star team for Kansas City.
Cain's production dropped (.747 OPS) in 2016 but a major factor was an ailing wrist that finally forced him to shut it down in September, limiting him to 103 games. But he bounced back in a big way last season, playing a career-high 155 games and batting .300 with a .363 OBP, 15 home runs, 49 RBIs and 26 steals.
Of Cain's surge in production as he hit age 30 and beyond, Stearns said, "It's not by accident. It's because of how he's working, how he's preparing and how he's taking care of his body."
The powerfully built, 6-foot-2, 205-pound Cain literally went out of his way to take care of his body. He has trained for several years at the University of Oklahoma, not exactly around the corner from his family home in Madison, Fla.
During his first time around with the Brewers as one of their best prospects, Cain played in 2008 at Class A Brevard County, Fla. One of his teammates, outfielder Chuckie Caufield, had attended OU and invited him to train there in the offseason (Caufield is now a coach for the Brewers' Class AA Biloxi affiliate).
Cain's trips to Norman, Okla., became life-changing in more ways than one. He met OU gymnast Jenny Baker during one visit, a romance blossomed and they later married. Cain moved permanently to Norman and still trains at OU in the offseason under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Tim Overman.
"(Overman) has completely re-shaped his workouts, completely re-shaped his flexibility, and given him the physical tools to back up the type of game he plays, which is all-out defense, stealing bases and stuff like that," said Cain's agent, Damon Lapa.
"You look at the traditional arc that those players have, that at some point in their mid-30s they're going to slow down. Well, last year he played the most games of his career, set a lot of career highs. He played some of the best defense his metrics have shown. So, at 31 years old, he had arguably one of his best seasons."
Lapa noted that Cain doesn't have the "mileage" on him that most players have at his age. He didn't start playing baseball until he failed to make his high school basketball team. No Little League. No youth baseball of any kind.
"You have to look at Lorenzo from a different perspective," Lapa said. "When you have a guy that literally never steps foot on the baseball field until he's 15 or 16 years old, you can't use the traditional aging models.
"David and his group have an advanced use of analytics and sabermetrics. They really appreciated and understood how Lorenzo contributes to a game. He's not a 30 (homer) and 100 (RBIs) guy who hits .260. He gets on base, hits for average and steals bases. He plays great defense. He does it all."
Time will tell how this works out for the Brewers in the long run. Cain was a coveted free agent on the market and had other teams interested, so it probably took the fifth year for the Brewers to get their man. And, with teams controlling players for the first six years of their career, free agents generally don't become available until they are 30ish.
"When you fish in free-agent waters, you're often fishing in this pond that has players in their 30s," Stearns said. "If you're going to fish, you have to do it selectively and you need to make sure that you're comfortable the player is going to age appropriately."
As Brewers fans saw the first time around, Cain is an all-out player not afraid to crash into an outfield wall pursuing the ball. That aggressive style of play exposes him to injury on occasion but Stearns said that's the kind of player worth the big bucks.
"We believe this is a healthy player, a player who takes care of his body," Stearns said. "He plays exceptionally hard. Players who play hard are going to have injuries, sometimes. But you want a player who plays hard."
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