Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 21, 2013

For Yankees And Cano, It May Be Time To Go

As a lifelong Yankees fan, I well recall the day in early 2004 when the trade with the Texas Rangers that brought Alex Rodriguez to the Bronx was consummated. I remember being underwhelmed by the deal; for while there was no denying A-Rod’s talent, even from a distance he seemed to me to be a supremely self-centered ballplayer. Plus there was the matter of that Esquire magazine interview two years earlier in which he had dissed my captain, Derek Jeter. There was also his gargantuan contract, a ten-year $252 million deal that was the richest in sports history when he signed it in 2001. Was any athlete really worth that much? To make matters worse, at least for me, to obtain Rodriguez the Yankees sent second baseman Alfonso Soriano to the Rangers. Soriano had just come off of back-to-back 30-30 seasons (home runs and stolen bases), displaying both power and speed. I liked Soriano a lot and was sorry to see him go.

Almost a decade later, Soriano is now back with New York, obtained from the Cubs last July in a trade deadline deal as GM Brian Cashman tried desperately to keep the aging and injury-riddled Yankees in the playoff chase. Back in pinstripes for the final two months of the season, Soriano passed the 400 career homer mark and drove in 18 runs in just four games in mid-August.

A-Rod of course is still a Yankee, to the dismay of many of the team’s fans. The bloated contract that he brought with him from Texas was replaced by one even more absurd after the 2007 season, when Hank Steinbrenner first wished Rodriguez good riddance when the third baseman exercised his opt-out clause, and then proceeded to sign him to a new ten-year deal worth $275 million. While the salary obligation hamstrings the Yankees financially, especially now as they try to get below the salary cap for just one year to obtain luxury tax rate relief, the unending circus that is life with A-Rod continues unabated.

This week in the midst of his arbitration hearing over MLB’s proposed 211-game suspension for alleged serial use of performance-enhancing drugs, Rodriguez stormed out of the hearing room and went on the radio to charge that the hearing was stacked against him. In an interview on WFAN he called the proceedings “a farce” and declared that he would no longer participate. The purported source of his frustration was a decision by arbiter Fredric Horowitz that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig would not have to testify at the hearing. But left unsaid by either Rodriguez or his attorneys was the fact that his self-imposed exile from the proceedings came just two days before he was supposedly going to offer his own sworn testimony. Talk about convenient timing.

Absent an unlikely exoneration from the arbitration panel, it’s a safe bet that A-Rod’s next step will be to sue in an attempt to block whatever suspension is ordered. The circus, in all its three-ring glory, should continue for months. Meanwhile the Yankees have plenty of holes to fill this winter, and Cashman’s job is made more difficult by the uncertainty over how much, if any, of A-Rod’s 2014 salary the Yankees will have to pay.

The most important decision in filling those roster holes is what to do with second baseman Robinson Cano, who has finally reached free agency with the expiration of a contract extension he signed in 2008. This brings the Yankees and their fans full circle back to the original trade for Rodriguez. Little noticed at the time was the fact that the deal included a component long familiar to baseball fans, a player to be named later going from New York to Texas. Two weeks after the splashy announcement of the trade, the Rangers were given a list of five Yankee minor leaguers from which they could select that player. The brain trust in Arlington chose Joaquin Arias. Now with the Giants, his third major league franchise, Arias has a career batting average of .272, but just six big league home runs. He’s never had a season with a WAR rating above 2.0, making him a career reserve in the Great Game’s new math.

Among the other names on the list given to the Rangers was Cano, then with AA Trenton. So from the perspective of Yankees fans, however much the Yankees have overpaid for Alex Rodriguez and his unnecessary drama, it could have been worse. For Cano has been a player in the mold of the Core Four of Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, and Posada; a home-grown player brought up through the organization’s ranks who grew into a superstar. A five time All-Star with five Silver Slugger awards and a pair of Gold Gloves, Cano has a .309 lifetime average. He’s averaged more than 195 hits each of the past five seasons, and has a good chance at achieving the 3,000 hit plateau before he’s done. After some adventurous turns at second base early in his career, he’s developed into a fine fielder, with those two Gold Glove awards both coming in the past four years. He displays a natural athleticism and grace which can make it look like he’s barely exerting himself while ranging far behind the bag to snare a grounder and fire to first for an out. This past season, with all of the injuries the team endured, he was his usual resilient self, missing only two games.

All of which would lead to the easy assumption that the Yankees will gladly open the Steinbrenner wallet to reward Cano. And to be sure, the team has given every indication that they are willing to do so, with a widely reported offer of $161 million over seven years. Seven future years that in the unending irony of free agency, are likely to be less productive that the last seven. That is how the system works; players are rewarded for past performance with contracts that more often than not they cannot really live up to in the out years.

But Cano, who left super-agent Scott Boras to sign with singer and entrepreneur Jay-Z’s fledgling sports agency operation last spring, seems to want far more than that. Equally widely reported has been his new agent’s demand for ten years and $310 million. The Yankees have made it clear they aren’t going to even consider that, and thankfully Hank Steinbrenner is no longer in charge so there’s no chance they will wind up bidding against themselves. It’s hard to imagine any team seriously considering such numbers, though some of the new regional TV contracts have allowed an owner or two to become delusional. And if it is just about the money, and legitimizing his new agent, well odds are that some team will offer Cano more than the Yankees have.

While it remains unlikely that Robbie Cano will be appearing at a podium in any big league city this winter to express his profound gratitude for a $300 plus million dollar contract, there is a very real chance that at some point he will be participating in a signing announcement someplace other than the Bronx. That will be a loss for the Yankees and their fans and in terms of his potential career legacy a loss as well for Cano. But if it comes to that, it will also be a not unwelcome reminder that after the debacle of the A-Rod contract, the Yankees have finally learned an extraordinarily expensive lesson.

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