On Robinson Cano and the Player/Contract Dichotomy

By: Michael Abitabilo

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Let’s start with this: The Yankees will desperately miss Robinson Cano. Cano is by far the best second baseman in Major League Baseball. In the midst of his prime and likely headed towards the Hall of Fame,[FN1] Cano was destined to be the Next Great Yankee. His offensive production combined with his steady if not spectacular defensive play will be impossible for the Yankees to replace.

FN1 – This proposition presumes Cano will remain healthy for the next 7-10 years and that he will not be involved in any legacy-tainting scandals that would, um, act as an imPEDiment to his Hall of Fame candidacy.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s discuss why the Yankees’ decision not to re-sign their best homegrown player in the last 15 years was absolutely the right decision, and one of which their fans should be proud.

Before we discuss the specifics of the Cano deal, let’s analyze the free-agency process in general.  This might seem like an obvious oversimplification, but an organization’s decision to sign or not sign a free agent will ultimately come down to its assessment of two elements: (1) the Player; and (2) the Contract.

Evaluating the Player isn’t as easy as looking at the back of his baseball card.  Teams now employ troves of scouts, data analysts, and other baseball operations professionals who are constantly trying to determine innovative ways to assess a player’s on-field value.  This process also requires a team to make an evaluation of the player’s talent as it pertains to the needs of the team.  Would the Boston Red Sox have loved to have Robinson Cano, the Player?  Of course. But having recently re-signed Dustin Pedroia to a seven-year, $100 million contract, Cano would not have filled a need. Other factors considered might include whether a player is likely to excel in light of certain environmental or other factors – the Yankees, for example, have historically valued left-handed hitters with power due to Yankee Stadium’s shallow right field dimensions.

The second factor (the Contract), comes down to the total number of years and dollars the team will have to commit to the player in order to entice that player to sign with the team.  Further complicating matters is that the Contract isn’t just a dollars and cents business decision. Teams must try to project the Player’s value in each of the years of any proposed deal.[FN2]  In this regard a player’s age and injury history become relevant factors.  Would 26 year-old Robinson Cano have been worth[FN3] a 10-year, $240 million contract? Perhaps. Is 31 year-old Robinson Cano worth that investment? Recent history says no.

FN2 – Some advanced statistical projections can be used to argue that Cano’s deal was appropriately valued (at least through the first few years). The problem with this argument is that it analyzes Cano in a vacuum and discounts the effect this deal might have on the Mariners’ ability to surround Cano with other productive players. In other words, what is the value in having a +WAR (above-average) second baseman four years from now if he is flanked by average or below-average players? It remains to be seen whether the Mariners will continue spending in order to build a winning team.

FN3- Obviously my use of the word “worth” here is relative.

In evaluating the Two Factors (the Player and the Contract), one can imagine a sliding scale of sorts. A team will be more inclined to enter into a potentially onerous Contract if the Player’s value (as defined above) is sufficiently high. (I’m fairly certain, if given the opportunity, the Yankees would sign 22-year old Mike Trout to a 20 year $40 Billion contract). Contrarily, a player’s Contract demands can sufficiently deter a team from signing even the best of Players. For the so-called “Big Market” teams, the assessment of the Player has traditionally been more important than the Contract. Elite players rarely leave these teams for greener pa$tures. The more cost-conscious teams must look for value in the Contract. The Tampa Bay Rays have famously traded several elite players for prospects they believe will develop into stars. They have also signed several of their elite young players to long-term deals earlier than necessary, forcing them to pay these players more than they had to early in their careers, but buying out several years of these players’ free agency in the process.

And so that brings us back to the Yankees and Robinson Cano. The Biggest of the Big Market teams repeatedly maintained they wanted to re-sign their second baseman, but in the end, allowed him to pack his bags for the Emerald City.

To the Yankees, Robinson Cano was not worth the 10 year, $240 million Contract he received from the Seattle Mariners.  Perhaps part of the reason the Yankees made this decision was based on their evaluation of the Player. Here is what I wrote about Cano in our somewhat satirical pre-season “Which New York Team is Worse” piece:

As gifted as this man is, he has never quite posted the MVP caliber numbers most people assumed he would. Having recently turned 30-years old, it is now safe to say we have seen Cano’s ceiling: a .300+ hitter who will hit about 25-30 home runs and drive in 100-115 runs. Despite his impressive batting average, Cano’s career on base percentage is just .351, only 43 points above his batting average, and well below the numbers posted by elite hitters.

I don’t want to pretend I am a stat-guy, nor do I want to be attacked by that crowd, but it’s certainly conceivable that Cano’s production will dip this year and thereafter. Would anyone be shocked if Cano posted .295/24/96 splits next year? What about five years from now? Is .277/21/85 an unreasonable projection? Are those numbers worth $24 million? Maybe not.

But for the reasons set forth in the first paragraph of this piece, chances are this wasn’t about Cano the Player. The Yankees were surprisingly steadfast in their resolve to avoid a contract that was overly burdensome with respect to total dollars or – more importantly – years. Undoubtedly influenced by their recent (and ongoing) experience with Alex Rodriguez (who they signed to a 10-year deal after the 2007 season when Rodriguez was, wouldn’t you know it, 31 years old), as well as other 10-year deals given to players over the age of 30 (Albert Pujols comes to mind) the Yankees made it clear they would not commit to the 31-year old Cano for 10 more years.

It was widely reported that the Yankees were willing to offer Cano a seven-year contract worth $175 million. Once it became apparent that the Mariners would offer Cano a nine or 10 year deal worth at least $50 million more, the Yankees’ resolve was tested. To their credit, the Yankees held their line, and allowed one of the best players in the game to leave without getting anything in return (save for draft-pick compensation).

Maybe he just really liked these sweet unis?
Maybe he just really liked these sweet unis?

The Yankees are often criticized for overpaying aging stars. It’s only fair, then, to give them credit in this instance for being unwilling to do so. While some critics might point to the additions of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran as evidence that the Yankees haven’t learned from the err of their ways, such logic is flawed. Indeed, between Ellsbury and Beltran the Yankees committed a total of approximately $198 million. In doing so, they significantly upgraded at two positions, while simultaneously spreading the risk in their investment among two players instead of one, all for $42 million less than the Mariners invested in Cano.

Plenty of questions remain about the 2014 Yankees.[FN4] Who will play second base? Will Alex Rodriguez be available and, if not, who will play third base? Who will round out the starting rotation? Will Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira be healthy and able to perform at a high level? Does Brett Gardner have a place on the team or should he be traded to answer one or more of the previous questions?

FN4- My projected answers to these questions are as follows: Omar Infante; No, and Kelly Johnson/Eric Chavez; Paul Maholm and Michael Pineda; Yes, and it depends on your definition of “high level”; and I hope he stays but suspect he will be dealt.

Clearly, re-signing Cano would have been the more stable thing to do for a team in flux. Nonetheless, and despite how much as the Yankees and their fans will miss Cano’s perfect swing and effortless laser-beam throws, the Yankees got this one right.  Robbie Cano, don’t ya know.

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and thus has the ability to delete this post if Robinson Cano wins the 2014 MVP.