Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2022

It’s Time To Go, Robbie Cano

The start of the week brought a unique deadline to the major league baseball schedule, one in place just this year because of the shortened Spring Training that was the product of the owners’ months-long lockout of players.  In a nod to the reality that players might not be fully prepared for the daily grind of the regular season, franchises were allowed to carry 28 players on the active roster, two more than usual, through the month of April.  However, that temporary dispensation meant the turning of the calendar to May required front office decisions on who to keep with the big club, and who instead got the bad news they were headed down to AAA, or worse.  For the most part, the deadline was of interest only to diehard fans of each ballclub, as the players impacted were hardly household names.  Perhaps a young position player who only began the season in the majors because of the expanded roster, but who then showed surprising promise in limited at-bats during the season’s first three weeks, was rewarded with the chance to continue wearing a big league uniform.  Or perhaps despite his efforts, he and a spot reliever were both given the GPS coordinates of the farm club’s home stadium.

The one certainty is that every decision to keep a marginal player on the roster required an offsetting call to remove someone else.  In the case of the New York Mets, that zero-sum mandate produced the biggest news of the May roster deadline, a decision to cut ties with eight-time All Star second baseman Robinson Cano.  The team could have demoted Dominic Smith, who slots in behind Pete Alonso at first base and thus has been mainly used as a pinch hitter.  But then the 39-year-old Cano, who missed all of the 2021 season while serving his second lengthy suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, did not have a clear starting role either, having appeared in just half of the Mets games and several of those as the designated hitter.  In 43 plate appearances, Cano was batting an anemic .195 with a .501 OPS.  He had a single home run, the only one of his eight hits that went for extra bases.

Cano was designated for assignment, the MLB process that triggers a seven-day period during which he could be traded or claimed off waivers by another club.  There is no chance of either of those outcomes, since Cano is owed a total of $48 million over this year and next, the final two seasons covered by the 10-year, $240 million deal he inked with the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2014 campaign.  The Mets are on the hook for all but $7.5 million of that under the terms of the trade that brought Cano to Queens in 2018.  That, of course, is a big piece of why news of Cano’s release was so noteworthy.  New York general manager Billy Eppler explained the financial ramifications to team owner Steve Cohen, who told Eppler to “make the baseball decision.”

It is safe to say that is not the answer Eppler’s counterparts in Cincinnati or Oakland, or perhaps even most other big league cities, would have heard from their owners.  Fixated as they are by the bottom line, far too many of those privileged to hold an MLB franchise would prefer to eke out some return, no matter how small, on such a large financial commitment, even though doing so decreased their team’s competitiveness.  Cohen’s rare view, applied not just to this contract but also to the many decisions that go into building a roster and navigating the longest season, is certainly good news for Mets fans, if not, in this instance, for Cano.  Then again, there has not been all that much good news throughout the second half of Cano’s now 17-year major league career. 

It was all so very different, once upon a time.  Cano seemed destined to be a ballplayer.  His father, Jose, was signed by the Yankees and pitched in the farm systems of both New York and Atlanta before appearing in six major league games with Houston in 1989.  He named his son after Jackie Robinson, and for much of his career Cano wore number 24 because it was the inverse of Robinson’s retired number 42.  Born in the Dominican Republic and splitting his childhood between there and New Jersey, Cano like his father was signed by the Yankees as an international free agent at the age of 18.  He made his Yankee Stadium debut in 2005, quickly becoming a fan favorite as Derek Jeter’s infield partner.  Through nine seasons in the Bronx, Cano batted .309 with an OPS of .860.  He compiled 44.4 WAR over those years while winning five Silver Slugger and two Gold Glove awards.

If Yankee fans had a complaint about Cano, it was that he sometimes appeared lackadaisical.  But in fairness, while he didn’t always sprint down the line to first after hitting a routine ground ball, Cano possessed so much natural talent that he made the game look far easier than it was.  There were many plays, on both sides of the ball, when what New York fans saw was not a player who wasn’t giving his all, but one who was always exceptionally smooth and in control.    

When he reached free agency after the 2013 season, the Yankees tried to woo Cano with their mystique.  In addition to a generous contract offer, they hinted at his trajectory toward becoming the first Dominican native with a plaque in Monument Park.  But perhaps too aware of his own raw ability, Cano’s first and only priority was money, so he took the biggest offer on the table, which was from Seattle.  New York fans were bitterly disappointed, but who can blame anyone for seeking to maximize their income, even when their job is entertaining those of us in the stands?

Still, while the wholesale move of MLB franchises away from offering rich long-term deals to any but the most prized free agents was still a few years away, the Yankees’ decision not to outbid the Mariners’ offer was a precursor of what was to come.  In his first season in Seattle, Cano essentially matched his numbers from the previous year in New York.  But then began a steady decline, until 2018.  That year Cano was having an early season renaissance, until the likely reason for it was revealed when he tested positive for Furosemide, a drug banned because it’s a diuretic that masks the use of performance enhancers. 

Cano served an 80-game suspension and was traded to the Mets after that season.  He posted the worst offensive stats of his career in 2019, before his numbers rebounded in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.  But once again, those statistics were called into question when Cano failed another PEDS test, resulting in a full season suspension in 2021.  Now, with whatever hope there was for a comeback seemingly exhausted, a career that once looked like it would be an arguable case for Cooperstown instead limps toward a lame and lonely end.

At least one sports website has posted a list of potential landing spots for Cano, which was every team with weak numbers from the DH position.  Once he is officially a free agent, any club can sign him for the league minimum salary, leaving Cohen to pay the bulk of Cano’s very large paycheck.  But even if that should occur, it is painfully obvious that the extraordinary grace and talent of Robbie Cano is but a memory of another time.  All that is left now is the far too common ending to an athletic career.  T.S. Eliot’s century-old words, though penned in a different context, still come immediately to mind.  Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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