From losing campaigns to multiple World Series championships glory, Matt Cain has been a part of it all with the San Francisco Giants over the last dozen seasons.
The Giants first round pick back in the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft at 25th overall out of a Tennessee high school, Cain worked his way incrementally through the San Francisco minor league system during the first half of the last decade.
After winning 23 games combined in the 2004-05 seasons while rising from High A to the AAA level, Cain was given his first taste of the big leagues at the end of August 2005.
Cain Begins His Big League Career
Inserted into the rotation immediately upon his August 29 debut, Cain would produce six consecutive Quality Starts in September to end that 2005 season.
He would remain in that rotation for the better part of the next decade, helping the Giants go from also-ran to perennial contenders.
For more than seven years, from that late ’05 debut through the 2012 season, Cain made every one of his starting assignments. He went 85-78 over that time with a 3.27 ERA and 1.173 WHIP, allowing just 1,279 hits in 1,536.2 innings over 236 appearances (235 starts) with 1,278 strikeouts.
Cain finished fifth in the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year Award vote. He became an NL All-Star in three of the four seasons between 2009-12, receiving Cy Young Award consideration in each of the final three years of that stretch.
Cain and the Giants Become Champions
In 2009, Cain helped lead the Giants to their first winning season in five years. Then in 2010, Cain and the Giants won the World Series.
It was the first world championship for the franchise since 1954, and the first at all since they had moved from New York to San Francisco following the 1957 season.
In 2012, the Giants would do it again, taking the Fall Classic for a second time in three years. Cain had the best season of his career that year, going 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA and a career high 193 strikeouts.
On June 13 of that 2012 season, Cain tossed the 22nd Perfect Game in Major League Baseball history. On that day he defeated the Houston Astros by a 10-0 score in front of the home fans at AT&T Park, striking out 14 batters in what was the first Perfect Game in club history.
Problems Begin to Arise
A two-time champion and one of the game’s best young starting pitchers at just age 28, Cain was entering what promised to be his prime years. And then it all suddenly changed for the worse.
In the 2013 season, Cain went just 8-10 as his ERA rose to the 4.00 mark. His peripheral numbers were not far off his career norms, so the season could be written off to a World Series hangover. After all, the entire team had slipped from that championship perch to a 76-86 losing campaign.
Injuries struck in 2014. He struggled in April and had to be placed on the 15-day DL for the first time in his career with a strained hamstring. Returning in mid-May, Cain remained largely ineffective and began to experience elbow discomfort.
Personal Struggles, Team Glory
Despite his final three starts all being Quality Starts, he was shut down after beating the neighboring Oakland A’s on July 9th. Two days later, Cain underwent surgery to remove bone chips on his right elbow and was done for the season.
The 2014 Giants rotation overcame his loss thanks to the emergence of Madison Bumgarner as a true ace, a resurgent season from veteran Tim Hudson, and the trade deadline addition of Jake Peavy. For the third time in five seasons, San Francisco would win the World Series.
Recovering from the surgery, Cain initially seemed to be fine. However, before the 2015 season even got underway he began to experience more arm troubles. Cain was placed on the DL with what was diagnosed as a flexor tendon strain in his forearm, and wouldn’t debut until July 2.
Once he did begin his 2015, Cain experienced the worst season of his career. He had just three Quality Starts in his first ten, and was shuffled to the bullpen towards the end of the year.
Things started well this past season. In his first start of the 2016 campaign, Cain tossed a Quality Start to beat the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers. However, he was then pretty much shelled in each of his next five outings.
After May 21, Cain would never reach the 6th inning again in the 2016 season. In September he was completely removed from the Giants starting rotation, and was left off the club’s postseason roster entirely.
What Comes Next?
Cain turned 32 years old on October 1, and he will enter the 2017 season with no promises. He wants a full shot at the starting rotation, and out of respect for what he has accomplished in the past will be given that opportunity in spring training.
“Matt wants to be a starting pitcher, and he’ll come to spring training expecting every opportunity to start, and he deserves that,” GM Bobby Evans said just last month per Andrew Baggarly with The Mercury News. “We look at having six viable starters going into spring training and we’ll let that play out. But Matt Cain has obviously meant a lot to the organization. I really associate his name with every one of these championships in different ways.
“And as you look toward 2017, we’ll have to decipher that. But it’s good to have depth and options and that’s a strength of ours. Matt is such an important part of this franchise, we have to be mindful of how we put that rotation together.”
The fifth starter role is the best that Cain can shoot for. He will likely have to compete with 26-year old lefty Ty Blach, who impressed in his first big league taste in September. Blach also beat the Chicago Cubs with two innings of strong relief in Game Three of the NLDS.
27-year old Albert Suarez, who made a dozen starts among 22 appearances in 2016, will also be back hoping for a shot. The Giants also have a couple of good-looking prospect starting pitchers who will come to spring training in Clayton Blackburn and Chris Stratton.
To throw a wildcard into the equation, the Giants signed veteran Josh Johnson to a minor league deal a week ago. The injury plagued former Marlins all-star right-hander will turn 33 at the end of January.
Bullpen Role May Wind Down Giants Career
When he was moved to the pen in September, Cain clearly was uncomfortable with the idea, but was willing to do whatever it took to help the Giants return to the postseason.
“Right now, what’s best for all of us, from chatting with Bochy and them, as long as everything goes as it’s going, I’ll stay in the bullpen for the month,” Cain said at the time per SFGate.com’s John Shea. “You never know. Things could change, but right now that looks like it’s the plan.”
Unfortunately for Cain, that might end up being the 2017 plan as well if he cannot beat the tough competition out for the rotation spot. His high salary is not going to guarantee that he automatically gets the 5th starter role.
Cain is owed $21 million next year in the final guaranteed season of an eight-year, $139.75 million deal signed back in 2010. After that, the Giants are surely going to pay him a $7.5 million buyout rather than exercise their $21 million option for the 2018 season.
Matt Cain was a big part of the success that the San Francisco Giants enjoyed in recent years. That time is ending now, with what looks like one final chance to impact the team in the 2017 season.