Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 8, 2013

Yankees Pass On Cano, And Win By Losing

It’s been just two and a half weeks since I used this space to offer the opinion that if All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano was unwilling to dramatically downsize his contract demands the New York Yankees would be better off letting him go to some other team willing to meet them. While I believed that both then and now, there was still something unsettling about this week’s news that the Yankees had done just that, and that Cano and his new agent Jay Z had agreed to a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners.

It was a “what’s wrong with this picture” moment, when the world seems to go slightly out of focus. These are the Yankees after all. Free agents from other teams come to the Bronx to sign gargantuan deals; the boys in pinstripes don’t go elsewhere to get them. Despite all of the assertions of new fiscal discipline and Hal Steinbrenner’s ardent desire to get under the $189 million salary cap for next season in order to reset the team’s luxury tax rate, surely when confronted with a higher offer for that rarest of baseball assets, a home-grown super talent, the Steinbrenner purse would be opened. The fact that the team had just missed the playoffs for only the second time in nineteen seasons helped to strengthen that belief. The last time that happened, in 2008, New York committed $423.5 million on long-term contracts for pitchers CC Sabathia and A. J. Burnett, plus first baseman Mark Teixeira, the top free agent position player that year. That spending was quickly rewarded with a World Series championship the following year.

Unsettling as it may be, in the end the Yankees held their ground, and Robinson Cano is on his way to the Pacific Northwest. In the near term that is a clear loss for the Yankees. Whoever is stationed at second base next April 1st when the New York opens the season on the road in Houston will be a comedown from Cano. The 31-year old is a five-time All Star who has also won a pair of Gold Gloves and five Silver Slugger Awards. His career batting average is .309, with 204 home runs. He’s averaged more than 40 doubles and 90 RBIs per season. He’s also been extremely durable, averaging more than 150 games played during his nine-year career. For the last seven of those years he’s averaged 160 games per season.

Yet despite those numbers and the certain fact that New York’s as yet unknown second baseman next season won’t be able to match them, letting Cano go is a victory for the Yankees. In the end the issue wasn’t money but the length of the contract, and on that issue the Yankees proved they have learned, albeit painfully, an important lesson.

As all fans of the Great Game know, the nature of free agency is that players are rewarded as much for what they have already done as for what they are likely to do. That truism applies ever more heavily as the length of a free agent contract increases. Players and their agents understandably seek contracts with the greatest possible number of years, while general managers and owners try to limit the length of contracts so that they aren’t paying big dollars to a player whose skills have eroded. In 2007, during the short period of time that he ran the club, Hank  Steinbrenner negotiated the worst contract in sports history, a $275 million 10-year gift to Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees third baseman was 32 at the time, and surely no one other than perhaps Hank Steinbrenner thought that A-Rod would be playing baseball at a level worth annual payments well north of $20 million in his forties. As it happened the inevitable decline in production came even sooner than that, yet New York remains on the hook through the 2017 season. The only potential relief for the Yankees may come from arbiter Fredric Horowitz, who is considering A-Rod’s appeal of a 211-game suspension that grew out of the Biogenesis morass.

In the case of Cano the Yankees were willing to match the Mariner’s offer in terms of annual salary. At the end GM Brian Cashman went to seven years and $175 million, or $25 million per year, right in line with Seattle. With the Rodriguez lesson never far from his mind what he would not do was commit to a decade-long contract for a 31-year old player. If the constant A-Rod reminder wasn’t strong enough, Cashman had only to look at other great second basemen. Ryne Sandberg is the only player at that position to win more Silver Slugger awards than Cano, but Sandberg hit just .250 after age 33. Joe Morgan hit .320 at age 32 before tailing off sharply. A lifetime .300 hitter, Roberto Alomar couldn’t hit .260 after the age of 34.

Of course it’s not just second baseman. Cano’s new contract matches the one then 32-year old Albert Pujols signed with the Angels two years ago. The former Cardinal’s batting average in Anaheim is more than fifty points lower that it was during his eleven seasons in St. Louis. All of his modern metrics are down as well, and last year for the first time in his career Pujols missed significant time due to injury. In Detroit, just two years after luring Prince Fielder away from Milwaukee with a 9-year, $214 million deal, the Tigers traded him to Texas. Detroit felt enough buyers’ remorse over a power hitter who had some of the worst slugging numbers of his career in 2013 to also send along $30 million to help the Rangers cover that fat contract.

Despite all of that history it seems there is always an owner or a general manager willing to listen to the siren call of an agent. In Cano’s case it was Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik who fell victim to Jay Z’s sales pitch. Certainly in the near term fans who visit Safeco Field will get to watch a great player, one who has all the tools in such abundance that at times he makes the Great Game look ridiculously easy. Whether they will still be enjoying the show when Cano is 39 or 40 or 41 is another matter. But at least this time, the unpleasant spectacle won’t be taking place in the Bronx, and for that Yankee fans can rejoice.

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