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The long, winding road for Lorenzo Cain

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If you think the Royals weren't supposed to be here, Lorenzo Cain REALLY wasn't supposed to be here. Yet, here we are.

ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain hoists the Lee MacPhail trophy for the Royals
ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain hoists the Lee MacPhail trophy for the Royals
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Lorenzo Cain just won the Lee MacPhail ALCS MVP trophy. Think about that for a minute: the 28-year old outfielder who had never posted a wRC+ above average since his 43-game debut back in 2010 took home the most valuable player hardware for the Royals, on their magical quest for a World Series title. Of course, anything can happen over a short sample, and the Royals made sure it was the shortest sample possible with their sweep of the Orioles, but it was a culmination of sorts, as well as a great testament to why players with promise shouldn't be given up on.

Cain was drafted in the 17th round of the 2004 Rule 4 Draft out of a Florida high school, 496th overall, by the Brewers. Given his draft position, he wasn't thought too highly of as a prep player. Sure, the potential was in there, but Cain hadn't started playing baseball until his sophomore year of high school (when he received his very first baseball glove) and was presumably raw by the time he was drafted. In a world where draft prospects are noticed early in the process by scouts through traveling teams and youth showcases, Cain was late to the party. By the time he was a senior he'd turned himself into a draft-worthy player but hardly one of certain promise.

Keep the tools in mind, however, when thinking of Cain. He's everything a scout, coach or fan can dream on, checking in at 6'2" and 185-pounds with speed to burn and oozing athleticism when he was selected. Unrefined? Perhaps, but teams take dozens of these kinds of chances every year in the draft and sometimes they pan out. Cain's story is along those lines as the raw tools eventually translated into results. After two season in rookie ball and one at High-A, he started to finally climb the Brewers' ladder in 2008, when he put up wRC+s of 125 and 128 in High-A and AA, respectively. Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein took notice in his 2009 Future Shock review:

Year in Review: The toolsy outfielder rebounded from a tough 2007 campaign, making major strides in translating his athletic ability into baseball skills.

The Good: Milwaukee credits Cain's step forward to a more disciplined approach, as he learned to lay off of breaking balls out of the strike zone and wait for pitches that he can drive. This also allowed him to begin to tap into his power, as his 11 home runs represented a career high, and with five more in the Arizona Fall League, the Brewers dream about him hitting 20 or more homers eventually. He has above-average speed, and is a good baserunner and a solid center fielder.

The Bad: Cain's game still needs some refinement. He can fall in love with his power at times, and becomes a bit pull-conscious. He still needs to work on his outfield play, particularly his jumps and reads. There are fears that if he can't stay in center, he'll profile as more of a tweener.

Perfect World Projection: He's not a huge impact player, but a nice everyday center fielder who can beat you in a variety of ways.

Glass Half Empty: He becomes a fourth outfielder who can play all three spots.

Cain lost time in 2009 due to injury and performed poorly when on the diamond, missing the cut and finding his way off the Brewers' top prospect list. He was good in the high minors in 2010 and earned a promotion to the big leagues, where he logged 43 games, slashing .310/.348/.415 in his rookies season, good enough for a 107 wRC+ with seven steals and 11 doubles. As predicted, he notched positive defensive values with a UZR/150 of 5.4, accrued primarily from playing in center, in addition to a handful of innings in left and right. The Brewers had their center fielder of the future on their hands.

And then they didn't.

In December of 2010, Cain was traded, along with Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi, for Zack Greinke. It was a blockbuster of a deal, as the Brewers sent four highly-regarded players to the Royals in exchange for the 2009 Cy Young winner. The change was likely tough to embrace for Cain and his fellow tradees. Kansas City had lost at least 93 games in seven of the previous eight seasons, making it one of baseball's blackest of black holes. The change of scenery didn't exactly improve Cain's performance: It was back to AAA for Cain with the Royals, save for a six-game trial where he didn't turn heads. But his minor league time appeared useful, as he was excellent over 128 games.

The extra seasoning was perhaps just what the doctor ordered, due to his lack of overall baseball experience. He was 25, however, and it would have been easy to dismiss his AAA performance. 2012 was destined to be his breakout, but the universe had other plans. Instead of bursting onto the major league baseball map, Cain was derailed by a series of injuries, starting with the fifth game of the major league season. He was injured trying to rehab and only managed to log 61 games with the Royals, in which he put up 1.7 fWAR, mostly on the back of strong center field defense. Still, it was a sign that if Cain could stay healthy and contribute for a whole season, he might just turn into a real difference-maker.

This is obviously what the Royals were hoping for when the 27-year-old reclaimed the center field job in 2013, but Cain fizzled at the plate. His 80 wRC+ over 115 games was not what anyone was hoping for, and with Jarrod Dyson knocking on the door, Cain either lost playing time or was moved to right field on occasion. In yet another year when it was all supposed to come together for Cain, the results were less inspiring than hoped for. His defense in the outfield saved his value, however, as he was able to accumulate 2.7 fWAR thanks to a UZR/150 of 29.2, fourth-best in the majors for all outfielders. He had the defense thing covered, but the bat was still lagging. Although he'd posted a career minor league slash line of .294/.366/.430, he managed a measly .251/.310/.348 and left a lot to be desired. Worst of all, the clock was ticking; as he approached his age-28 season, Cain's leash most certainly was tightening considering the team's aspirations heading into the 2014 season.

And then it all clicked. He hit for more power. He stole more bases. He was more consistent. He played a career-high number of games, and even managed to get luck on his side. The defense held, the offense came around, and when the dust settled, Cain put up nearly 5 fWAR in his long-awaited breakout campaign, good enough for seventh-best among all major league center fielders. As you can imagine, the timing couldn't have been better. The Royals scratched and clawed their way into the playoffs with only one extra game to spare. An untimely falter by Cain (or any of his teammates) could have seen the Royals at home right now rather than entering the World Series for the first time in 29 years.

Instead, Lorenzo Cain finally blossomed before our eyes. The physical gifts turned into defensive and offensive production and Royals have certainly needed every bit of it he could muster. On the biggest stage of his career, Cain was stellar in the ALCS, going 8 for 15 (.533) with five runs scored, two walks and three strikeouts while making highlight reel catches appear entirely routine. He certainly captured America's attention during the series as the Royals pushed their magical season one step closer to completion.

This is Lorenzo Cain: a guy that wasn't supposed to play baseball, wasn't drafted highly, rarely received accolades in the minors, was traded to one of baseball's worst-performing franchises, suffered from injuries, failed to perform in the majors and looked to be on the verge of washing out as a defense-only player at best. Instead, that vision that Kevin Goldstein and countless other scouts had seen for Cain in the past finally manifested itself. It came at the perfect time for his team, as they're one step away from a World Series crown. Baseball's funny sometimes, and I guess that's why we watch it. Lorenzo Cain's been magnificent, and he's certainly worth watching, too.

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All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

Jeff Wiser is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can find his work on craft beer at BeerGraphs and follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.