By Brian Foley, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Sep 12, 2018 at 6:06 PM

The Milwaukee Brewers shocked the baseball world when they handed free agent Lorenzo Cain a five-year, $80 million contract in late January. Cain had been a linchpin of Kansas City’s World Series team in 2015 and finished with the seventh-most wins above replacement (WAR) among outfielders from 2014-17.

But for a centerfielder sitting on the wrong side of 30 years old with a game largely based on speed and defense, forking over a long-term, eight-figure contract seemed like a bad bet for the Brewers down the road.

But in less than a year, Cain has already made that a moot point. Not only has he propped up Milwaukee’s inconsistent offense, he has actually improved his skills across the board and pushed his name into the National League MVP conversation while his Brewers vie for the NL Central crown.

Cain has always been a quality offensive player, though that has never been his calling card. He posted a 113 OPS+ during his peak years with the Royals, and while useful (it’s 13 percent better than league average), it is certainly not MVP-worthy.

This season, though, Cain has boosted his offensive arsenal, while maintaining his excellent base running and top-shelf defense. His OPS+ is 123 and he is tops among NL position players in WAR, according to both Fangraphs (5.4) and Baseball Reference (6.3). Cain ranks fourth in batting average (.311), third in on-base percentage (.401), sixth in strikeout-to-walk rate (0.78) and 14th in strikeout rate (15.2 percent). He doesn’t necessarily have elite power – Cain’s 36 extra-base hits are just 71st in the NL – but his other exceptional offensive talents mask any power concerns.

Where Cain really laps the field is on the base paths and in the field. The 32-year-old can still fly, ranking fourth in the NL in stolen bases (26) and third in Fangraphs’ Base Running metric. In center field, Cain has somehow upped his already impressive abilities as a defender. From 2014-17, Cain averaged 14 defensive runs saved (DRS) per season; this season, he has posted 17 DRS, good for second in the NL and first among outfielders. He also has 11 outfield assists this year – tied for second – which is already a career-high mark.

In sum, he combines a very good hitting line with high-level base running and nearly unmatched defense. Milwaukee has a talented team, but the acquisition of Cain has given them a massive boost in the margins and is a big reason why the Brewers have 30 wins in one-run games, an NL-high. Cain steals hits every night in the outfield, takes the extra-base to move into scoring position and works the count atop the order to pace the rest of the lineup.

Admittedly, Cain would not be the greatest MVP candidate ever. Just look across at the American League, where there are at least six players who would easily take the NL crown this year (Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, JD Martinez and Alex Bregman).

But such talent does not exist in the NL this season. Cain’s teammate Christian Yelich is having a superior offensive campaign, but he isn’t quite as well rounded in the other facets of his game. The same goes for St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, who also got off to horrible starts this season (both were hitting under .200 in late May before rallying in the summer). Chicago’s Javy Baez and Colorado’s Nolan Arenado pair excellent defense with slightly better offense than Cain (Baez is also a great base runner), but they just don’t do it quite as well as the Brewers centerfielder.

This would be a prime season for a pitcher to steal the award, yet the NL can’t even settle on which arm should take home the Cy Young award between New York’s Jacob deGrom, Washington’s Max Scherzer and Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola. There also needs to be a perfect storm for a pitcher to win the MVP, including lackluster position player candidates, stellar pitching performances and a narrative push from the baseball community. The first two qualifiers are certainly in play, but no one is really clamoring for a pitcher MVP this season, and New York, Washington and Philadelphia will all likely miss the postseason.

Cain certainly hasn’t taken over the narrative crown just yet either, and playing in the small-market Milwaukee isn’t helping his cause. Still, there is time for him to pop into the baseball zeitgeist as we come down the stretch, especially with the Brewers breathing down the Cubs’ neck for the NL Central pennant. Should he push the Brewers over the top with a monster finish, the voters will have to take notice of his incredible season.

Vegas still doesn’t believe in Cain, as he currently is outside the top-seven in NL MVP odds, according to Bovada. That is a mistake. He is the energizer behind one of the best teams in the National League and one of the rare do-it-all stars in today’s specialized game. Not only should Cain be receiving votes, he should be the top contender for the award.