Coveted prospect Cain waits for his chance
Outfielder acquired in Greinke deal stymied by depth chart
The outfield picture for the Royals was uncertain at the beginning of the 2011 season.
Alex Gordon was in his first full season as an outfielder. Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur were signed to one-year deals, and in all likelihood were going to be stopgaps until someone like Lorenzo Cain got his call back to the Majors.
Acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade last December, Cain looked like he would be the future in center field for the Brewers. He played in 43 games in 2010 with the Brewers, and hit .306 with a .348 on-base percentage.
Now in the Royals' system, Cain spent the 2011 season with Triple-A Omaha, where he hit .312 with 16 home runs and 81 RBIs before being promoted to Kansas City just as the Storm Chasers lost in the Triple-A championship a week before the Major League season ended. Cain later appeared in six games with the Royals, hitting .273 [6-for-22] with one RBI.
Despite the small sample, Cain consistently proved he was ready to play at a higher level.
"I've always been a guy, where I don't really pay attention to the outside stuff," Cain said. "I just try to focus on myself and where I'm at. I was in Triple-A all year, so the only thing I could worry about was being in Triple-A. Just trying to go out there and put up numbers, play the best I can to get up here."
As well as Cain performed in Omaha, the guys in Kansas City were better. Gordon finally enjoyed a breakout season at the plate while also collecting a Major League-leading 20 outfield assists. Francoeur hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases. Cabrera enjoyed the best season of his career. All three outfielders had over 80 RBIs, and all three had over 40 doubles, becoming the first Major League starting outfield ever to do so.
Francoeur signed a two-year extension in August. Gordon said he's open to an extension to stay in Kansas City. The question is what will happen with Cabrera, who's under team control for 2012. If the Royals try to swing a trade for a starting pitcher that involves Cabrera, that opens up a spot for Cain. But if they don't?
"It's mixed emotions for me right now," Cain said. "I can't say really 'frustrated,' but can say we have a lot of great outfielders over here. So all you can do is go out and play hard, and hopefully everything will work out."
Cain's manager in Omaha, Mike Jirschele, applauded the outfielder for handling the situation like a professional.
"I give him credit for, with everything that's going on up here, he acted exactly the way you want kids to act down there, and go about their business," Jirschele said. "They have no control over who the three outfielders are up there. If they're in Triple-A, they have a job to do, and that's go out and make themselves better and put up numbers so something has to happen."
The numbers, including 16 stolen bases [a number Jirschele says should be higher], are there. The space isn't, much like with Cain's Omaha teammate Clint Robinson. Robinson hit .326 with 23 home runs, 100 RBIs and a .933 OPS for the Storm Chasers, but as a first baseman/designated hitter, has no spot in Kansas City with Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler in the way.
Cain and Robinson are making their cases to remain in the Major Leagues. However, if there isn't room on the Royals' roster, it very well could be Cain and not Cabrera who brings in a starting pitcher.
"I think what they understood and what kids at that level have to understand, is if there's not an opening up here for them, well, there's 29 other teams out there," Jirschele said. "If you put the numbers up, you never know when one of those other teams are going to come after you. And if Kansas City feels you're a guy they can maybe trade, you can trade them.
"But if you sit at that level and pout about it and not put the numbers up, well, there's not going to be any teams interested. And I give both those guys credit because they went about their business and got the job done and put up good numbers again."
So now, the question of playing regularly in the big leagues might not be when, but where for Cain. All he can afford to do is keep working hard and waiting for a chance. Playing what if -- as in what if he was still with Milwaukee and enjoying a playoff run -- isn't really an option.
"I guess I've kind of just closed that chapter right now. I don't think about it at all," Cain said. "Things happen, I'm over here now, so all I can worry about is making sure I'm ready to go and making sure I'm doing the best I can to improve in all aspects of my game."
Adam Holt is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.