But Sabean expressed similar resolve last year, before he weighed trading Lincecum for Toronto outfielder Alex Rios. The Giants needed a big bat then, and they still need one now. With Lincecum having entrenched himself among baseball's top performers, speculation has shifted to Cain, who almost surely could be exchanged for a potent hitter still in his 20s.
Since GMs loathe divulging their innermost thoughts, MLB.com asked four Major League scouts about the merits of trading Cain, which until recently would have been unthinkable. Speaking under condition of anonymity, they agreed Cain's better being retained than peddled -- yet they wouldn't hesitate to trade him in the right deal.
"I certainly wouldn't want to move him unless I absolutely had to," a scout for a National League team said of Cain, whose 30-43 career record belies his 3.74 ERA. "I think he's going to get better. With continued maturity, he's going to be a dominant guy."
With his 6-foot-3, 246-pound physique, steamy fastball and stoic attitude, Cain has "big-time upside," a scout for an American League club said. "He's at the top of the list. I think he's going to be an impact pitcher."
But the consensus of scouts said Cain doesn't quite qualify for the tiny group of truly untouchable players.
"The only guys I'd say would be untouchable with anybody would be the Albert Pujolses or the Joe Mauers of the world," a scout representing an AL team said. "There aren't too many guys in our game about who you'd say, 'I can't trade him.' I think it's very closed-minded if you would say he's untouchable."
One scout pondered Oakland's eight-player deal last December with Arizona that fetched the A's six players, mostly Minor League prospects, for right-hander Dan Haren.
"That's a great analogy right there -- that's what you've got to do," the scout said. "Is Matt Cain any better than Dan Haren? I don't know. But they traded [Haren]."
One rumor already has circulated widely: Cain for Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder, who has hit 112 home runs in the last three seasons. The Brewers could lose both CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency and would desperately need a starter.
"Wow," one of the NL scouts said. "That would be tempting. But, to me, Fielder is a below-average defensive player. I care more about defense than most people."
Money would be a factor in this trade. Fielder's eligible for salary arbitration and could command as much as $10 million. Signing him to a multiyear deal wouldn't be cheap, either. By contrast, Cain's contract -- an economical one, which enhances his value -- will pay him $2.65 million in 2009 and $4.25 million in 2010. There's also a $6.25 million club option for 2011, although the base figure could rise nominally if Cain reaches certain performance levels.
Thus, the Brewers probably would have to send the Giants a player or two with Fielder to get Cain. One scout said: "If there's imbalance with the dollars, the other club would probably sweeten the pot a little bit."
A scout suggested that if the Giants dangled Cain for a hitter besides Fielder, they probably could obtain two prospects along with the hitter they needed. He added that one of the prospects ought to be a pitcher who is almost Major League-ready to help cushion the loss of Cain.
But, another scout said: "The problem with our game is there aren't a lot of organizations with a lot of bona fide prospects in their systems."
Yet, some do possess that depth, and chances are that they're among the two dozen clubs involved in the perennial search for starting pitching. Sabean and his assistants can expect to handle plenty of questions about Cain in the weeks ahead.