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6.15.2006

Trade Bait: The Rotation 

It's been overshadowed by the win, the Bonds blast, and Finley's 300th career home run, but let's use Matt Cain's shaky start last night to launch into a discussion of trade possibilities involving the starting rotation.

I know Matt Cain is only 21. A child, nay, an infant. He is blessed with incredible skill and, according to all the pundits, remarkable maturity for his age.

Right now, however, he is a marginal major league pitcher, rarely going more than 5 innings per start and often giving up runs in bunches -- hence the ERA in the mid-5 range. It's not bad luck, either. The pattern is painfully evident: He falls behind and has to throw a strike, then throws a fastball down the middle, and major league hitters cream it. Shawn Green got one on a tee last night, and he parked it 430 feet away.

We all got jazzed about Cain's debut last year, but people reading between the lines saw too many walks and lots of fly balls, and cold-eyed prediction systems rightly saw the honeymoon ending this year. For those of you without a BP subscription, the PECOTA predictor called for a 4.42 ERA/1.37 WHIP in '06; it also doesn't see him getting appreciably better in the next five years.

I'm not beholden to PECOTA or other stathead tools, but I understand where they're coming from regarding Cain. It's possible he'll cut down on the walks and become dominant; it's also possible that, like so many world-of-promise pitchers before him, he'll never put it all together.

Even if he does, how long until the light bulb clicks on? A couple more months? A year? Three years? He's also a pitcher with some injury history, so how long before he's sidetracked physically?

If he's going to pitch like Kevin Correia the next three years, maybe the best strategy is to sell high now -- trade him and let Kevin Correia play the role of Kevin Correia.

It's impossible to tell, just as it was impossible to know Joe Nathan would become the Midwest's Mariano Rivera or Kurt Ainsworth would succumb to career-ending injuries.

Put in that context, should the Giants trade Cain this year for someone who's young, cheap, extremely healthy, and already proven to be a star? At this point, the Marlins would probably want more than just Cain in exchange for Miguel Cabrera, but as the Giants gaze into a near future with precious little offense, it's arguable that three years of Cabrera playing every day (until he reaches free agency) are worth receiving for the high-ceiling promise of Cain.

I doubt it will happen, and I'm not sure I would like it. Cain could well be a once-in-a-generation pitcher. But as A.Q. Khan likes to say, these arms are made for dealing.

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