Many internet prognosticators figured it would be at least 12 months before Robinson Cano voiced his displeasure concerning Seattle’s roster construction, projecting a full season of disappointment before any public outcry. Instead, it has taken only 90 days as a member of the Mariners for the star second baseman to provide the front office with some pointers. Though the speed of his ‘advice’ hasn’t earned him much in terms of popularity amongst his new fanbase, it would be wrong to instantly dub Cano and his contract off the mark, and begin the what seems inevitable process of his becoming a financial albatross to the team. He’s probably actually right.
Cano’s signing with the Mariners started the clock of contention ticking for Seattle, a situation succinctly explained by Mike Curto: “The mix of Cano’s age (31) and the financial commitment speeds up the Mariners’ calendar. The team is now pressured to win in the next few years, before Cano’s skills severely decline.” With a clear window of serviceable Cano years to operate in, and armed with an impending $2 billion thanks to a new long-term agreement with DirecTV, the M’s promised to be aggressive on the free-agent market in building a team around their prize in order to immediately contend in a loaded AL West division. What actually happened however… well, they struck out – as my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series detailed. Entering the season, the Mariners are projected to have Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager batting ahead of Cano, with Corey Hart in line for clean-up duty. That’s a problem, one Cano had no issue with immediately highlighting in an interview with CBSSports.com earlier this week:
“I’m not going to lie. We need an extra bat, especially a right-handed bat. We have many left-handed hitters. We need at least one more righty. You don’t want to face a lefty pitcher with a lineup of seven left-handed hitters.”
When Cano signed his 10-year, $240 million contract in December, it was clear he was leaving a bad offense behind in New York; as Baseball Prospectus pointed out in their fantastic annual, “The second baseman accounted for 68 percent of the Yankees’ BWARP” in 2013. At age 31, he quite rightly jumped at Seattle’s offer – purportedly $65 million more than the next-highest bidder – and GM Jack Zduriencik’s promise to build a contender around him during the remainder of his prime. The problem there being that Cano’s prime may already be over – and Zduriencik has so far done nothing.
Mike Bates of SB Nation studied the 20 most valuable players who spent more than half of their careers at second base through age 30 since 1900; his results showed that the group average fell from a cumulative 47.3 WAR through their age 31 seasons, to just 22.3 WAR after. So while Cano has been remarkably durable so far in his cumulating a career 45.1 WAR (he’s currently in the midst of a seven season streak of at least 159 games played), and consistently great at both the plate and in the field, every historical indicator points to those days of healthy performance soon ending. In his study of the unsightly aging curve of offense-minded second basemen, Fangraphs writer Tony Blengino wrote the following about Seattle’s splashy acquisition:
History says that Cano will ride out the end of his peak period in 2014, begin a solid decline phase with some .300ish, 18-20 HR seasons, than begin a deeper secondary decline phase during which he accumulate hits — and outs. By age 35, there will likely be a severe disconnect between Cano’s salary and his production.
Paging Jack Z – 2014 is this year! It has always been acknowledged that the back end of the Dominican native’s contract would be an overpay, but the obliviousness of the Mariners front office to the obvious decline on the horizon is a little frightening for a long-suffering Seattle fan base. Father Time catches up with even the best players in the end – just ask Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels.
All of which is why Cano’s recent lobbying for help (including for the still-available Ervin Santana and Kendrys Morales) makes sense; if he is only going to be able to provide front-loaded production, the team should go out and get help now. Per Cot’s Contracts, the Seattle payroll is currently sat at around $74 million, with just Cano and Felix Hernandez as the only large contracts, yet with the benefit of their upcoming TV deal they neither seriously pursued Nelson Cruz or Ubaldo Jimenez in free agency, nor made an aggressive push for a David Price deal despite possessing a suitable return piece in Taijuan Walker (who is now injured, naturally). Cano’s addition alone will not be enough to in one year turn around completely an offense that in 2013 finished 12th in the Junior Circuit with 624 runs scored and ranked 10th in the AL in team OPS (.695), let alone push a 91 loss team to the peak of the AL West and into the playoffs – baseball is the most individual ‘team sport’ after all. One man can only do so much, and that one man is due to decline; (the admittedly conservative) PECOTA has him projected to hit .297/.352/.482 with a .307 TAv and 21 HR in 2014 – and his numbers are only going in one direction from there.
Cano probably knows it. Seattle apparently, does not. Keep talking Robbie, I don’t blame you. If the M’s are serious about contending, maybe they’ll start listening too.