MILWAUKEE — Lorenzo Cain made a strong impression in his first taste in the majors in 2010, batting .306 and dazzling in the outfield in 43 games for the Milwaukee Brewers.
So when he learned that December he was being traded to Kansas City, in a deal that would bring Zack Greinke — and, eventually, a postseason appearance to Milwaukee — the news hurt.
Cain blossomed into one of the best young center fielders in baseball, part of a core group that led the Royals to back-to-back World Series appearances — winning it all in 2015.
But even as the Royals started to slide and free agency approached, Cain never imagined he’d be back at Miller Park again, as he was Friday afternoon, putting on a Brewers jersey after signing a five-year contract reportedly worth $80 million.
“I remember getting that phone call and finding out I was getting traded after spending so much time in Milwaukee with the team that had drafted me,” Cain said as the Brewers announced the deal at Miller Park. “It was mixed emotions and it definitely hurt a little bit. But to get an opportunity to come back here and play with Milwaukee is definitely a dream come true.”
A .289 hitter with the Royals and an All-Star in 2015, Cain played a career-high 155 games last season and finished with a .300 average, .363 on-base percentage, 15 home runs and 26 steals. He was a Gold Glove finalist in center field.
But with the Royals looking to rebuild, Cain hit the open market and was happy to learn Milwaukee wanted to bring him back.
“Once I found out they were in on me a lot of memories came back,” Cain said. “I remembered getting my first call-up, my first hit, my first home run. A lot of good memories came. It was definitely a place I wanted to come back to and hopefully do what we did in Kansas City, which was eventually going to the playoffs and bringing a World Series back here.”
Manager Craig Counsell has penciled in Cain as his regular center fielder but expects Christian Yelich, also acquired Thursday night in a trade with Miami, to see time in center, as well.
Adding Cain and Yelich into a mix that also includes Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips creates a bit of a logjam in the outfield.
“I think I’d call it depth,” general manager David Stearns said.
Santana, 24, has been mentioned in multiple trade rumors as Stearns continues his search for rotation help. The team plans to give Braun work at first base during spring training to free up more at-bats.
“I think that’s something we’re open to exploring in spring training and seeing where it leads,” Stearns said. “Obviously, it’s challenging to change positions at the major league level, but it’s something that Ryan is open to exploring so we’ll see where that leads.
“That is a possibility.”
Still, Counsell has proven adept at shuffling his players into and out of the lineup, eschewing the traditional starter and bench roles, instead referring to them as his “position player group.”
“We’ve got a lot of good choices,” Counsell said. “They’ll be tough choices, but there will be a lot of good choices. So that’s how I’m looking at it. As we get better and the more good players we acquire, the lineup choices become tougher.”
Counsell was midway through his penultimate season as a player when Cain made his debut July 16, 2010, pinch-hitting in a 9-3 victory at Atlanta.
Asked Friday what he remembers of Cain’s rookie season, Counsell recalled a crash-into-the-wall catch in Cincinnati that robbed Paul Janish of extra bases — one of many highlight-reel grabs that have defined Cain’s career.
“That (was) eight years ago, but when you don’t forget a play like that it’s because you don’t see guys make plays like that,” Counsell said. “It sticks with you. I think it speaks to his defense he’s been so noted for in his career. It’s really what sticks out, the defense, the way he runs after a fly ball.”
Cain remembers his manager as being a quiet veteran.
“He definitely didn’t talk much,” said Cain, who accurately mimicked Counsell’s famous batting stance. “I actually was late one day and I think he made me go buy everyone coffee. That was kind of my little punishment for being late as a rookie. Completely understood.”
Cain also credited Counsell with helping him realize his offensive potential as a young player, challenging him to unleash in batting practice each day.
“He was such a talented hitter,” Counsell recalled. “I remember saying, ‘You can hit the ball a long ways. Just try to do it.’ That was early — I was telling him to hit home runs in 2010.
The Brewers have now reacquired two of the four players they gave up in the Greinke deal.
“It’ll be good to see him again,” Cain said of reliever Jeremy Jeffress. “I got a chance to talk with him a little bit when he was with Texas. It’s good to see the guys you came through the system with and grew up with. It’s always fun to talk to them and get a good laugh.”
The Associated Press later reported that Cain gets $14 million this year, $15 million in 2019, $16 million in 2020, $17 million in 2021 and $18 million in 2022, with $1 million annually deferred and payable in equal installments from 2023-27. He has a full no-trade provision this year and a limited no-trade for the rest of the deal allowing him to list teams he cannot be traded to without his consent: 15 in 2019, seven from 2020-21 and five in 2022.