As Spring Training slowly shudders and stumbles underway at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, for the first time in more than a few years the most talked-about infielder in camp for the New York Yankees isn't Alex Rodriguez, despite the franchise third baseman's fresh public relations battle over PEDs.
That's partially because Rodriguez isn't in camp with the Yankees, but in New York rehabbing from hip surgery over the offseason, where he says he will not be a distraction for his team while reporters for New York's most popular tabloids try desperately to prove him wrong. But it's also because, even though the Post and Daily News have been trying to whip their readers into a frenzy over the possibility of Rodriguez never returning to the active roster, there's a very important player actually in camp who stands a much better chance of never wearing pinstripes again after the end of the 2013 campaign.
Robinson Cano, the best second baseman in Major League Baseball across the last four seasons by a comfortable margin (over Boston's Dustin Pedroia, Philadelphia's Chase Utley, and Texas's Ian Kinsler), will hit free agency for the first time in his career next offseason, and he is interested in getting paid a large sum of money for a large number of years. Cano is represented by Scott Boras, after all. You may have heard of him.
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At first glance, there doesn't really seem to be any question that the Yankees should sign Cano to a long-term deal. Last year, all MLB second basemen combined for 20567 plate appearances of .257/.318/.383 (.701 OPS) hitting. The only positions to perform worse at the plate than second basemen were shortstops and pitchers, as one might expect. Centerfielders and catchers, the other position players higher than second basemen on the defensive spectrum (and thus permitted to hit less while retaining similar value due to their contributions in the field) outhit the middle infielders handily, posting OPS of .748 and .718 respectively. At the moment there's a decided lack of hitting talent coming from both middle infield positions.
In 2008, Robinson Cano's worst full year in the majors, he hit for a .715 OPS. In 2005, his first year in the majors, his OPS was .778. Every other year of his eight season career, Cano has beaten this year's average second base line by over 140 points of OPS. It's true that hitting has gotten more difficult over the past few seasons as MLB has become more of a pitcher's league, making a .701 OPS in 2012 relatively more valuable than Cano's .715 in 2008. But Cano didn't put up a .701 or a .715 OPS last year -- he hit .313/.379/.550 (.929). He'd have been a legitimate MVP candidate if one guy hadn't won the Triple Crown and another put up one of the best seasons of all time at age 20.
Cano is also a great defensive player at second. He's not clearly the best at his position like he is at the plate, but of the guys as good or better at it than him -- Pedroia, Kinsler, Utley, Mark Ellis of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Darwin Barney of the Chicago Cubs -- only Pedroia manages to both approach Cano's value now, and project to keep pace with him moving forward. Barney and Ellis aren't even in the same conversation as Cano when it comes to offensive production, and Kinsler and Utley, who are both older, already come with serious concerns moving forward about their ability to remain effective. And it's in those concerns that the case for letting Cano walk starts to take shape.
Due to the grueling nature of the position, injuries are a big problem for second baseman -- the role is more more abusive to the lower body than any other spot on the field except catcher. So far, this hasn't been an issue for Cano: he's been on the disabled list exactly once in his eight years in the Bronx, in 2006, and has played at least 159 games every year since then.
But Cano is 29 years old, and the way second base fragility commonly manifests isn't through a player going in and out of the lineup in his mid-to-late twenties, but a swift and disastrous fall-off in his early thirties. Two of the other elite hitting second basemen in the league, Utley (34) and Kinsler (30), are suffering through this right now. In fairness, Kinsler has had injury issues for years, so perhaps he's just unfortunately fragile, but Utley's medical history is uncomfortably similar to Cano's. Both men had one 15-day DL stint early in their twenties and cranked out four very solid seasons after that, playing the vast majority of their team's games at second; but over the last three years (ages 31-33) Utley has played 115, then 103, then 88 games. The Phillies second baseman is still a valuable player -- his defense remains elite when he's healthy and he's still getting on base -- but he's hitting for a lower average and less power than he did in his prime. At 34, that prime is over, though as with any elite player it'd be a mistake to count him out entirely.
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Cano's impending early thirties, and what they could mean for his health, constitutes the strongest argument against giving him something like $25 million a year for the next 10 seasons, even under the mindset that the backend of the contract is paying for the production of the front. There's always the chance that any player signed to a mega-deal falls off in production rapidly during the first few years of the contract -- Yankees fans reading this are all too familiar with what Alex Rodriguez is going to cost the franchise through the latter part of the decade. But there's at least one reason, beyond the normal concerns about what second base does to a player, to be wary of giving Cano the sort of gigantic contract that Scott Boras has in mind for him. It has to do with the fact that when he was coming up, a lot of scouts thought Robinson Cano would never stick at second base.
When projecting major league middle infielders, scouts look for very specific frames and body types, especially below the waist. When they think a guy is going to fill out in the trunk and legs with muscle they adjust their expectations to the corners of the infield. The reasoning goes that adding size and strength to the lower body will decrease agility and lateral movement, decreasing the player's effective range. This is the reason that young Baltimore shortstop Manny Machado was projected to shift over to third base later in his career, before the Orioles decided to send him there ahead of schedule; it's the reason that when Seattle Mariners middle infield prospect Nick Franklin showed up to camp having added about 35 pounds of weight to his lower body on a high-calorie, heavy weight-training conditioning program, the news wasn't met with full-throated approval in scouting circles.
Big guys like that tend to get moved to the corners. It's just how the conventional wisdom works. The Yankees have a history of ignoring body type concerns over the past decade when developing their middle infielders -- see not only Cano but Eduardo Nuñez and, going back a bit farther, Alfonso Soriano. Soriano was a bit lighter than Cano is right now when he played second, and his last year in the infield was his age 29 season with Texas (he went the other way in the trade that brought Rodriguez to the Bronx; every player in that 2004 deal -- Soriano, Rodriguez, and then-prospect, now-Giants 5th outfielder Joaquin Arias -- played in the majors last season). Eduardo Nuñez, as AL East fans are well aware, has played himself off of pretty much every position except designated hitter.
This doesn't mean Cano is predestined to move over to third base as soon as he hits 30, but the Yankees definitely have a higher tolerance for this sort of thing than most. And this movement to the corners is fairly absolute.
Since 1961, only 15 men have played over 150 games a season between the ages of 29 and 35 and spent 85% or more of that time at second base. The heaviest of those men was around 185 pounds. Robinson Cano weighs in around 210. Weight numbers in MLB, as in all professional sports, are ballpark figures at best, but the margin of error on them isn't big enough to hand wave 35 pounds away. This isn't just a case of ballplayers today being heavier than they were in the sixties and seventies, either, though they certainly are. The guys coming in at 185 on the list are Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio; Roberto Alomar for some reason weighs a precise 184; and Brett Boone and Eric Young played at 180. Ray Durham at 170 pounds is actually the most contemporary of the group, turning 36 in 2008.
While being a lighter guy is certainly no guarantee that a player will remain injury free through his early thirties, the lack of anyone over 185 pounds on that list is concerning. It means that at best, by 32 or 33 larger guys have played themselves off of second base but are still contributing everyday players at third, first, or a corner outfield spot; at worst, it means they're struggling to stay healthy and are hurting their team in the field by not being more wisely deployed. The oft-injured Chase Utley is reported to be a bit lighter than Cano at 200 pounds.
There are some hopeful comparisons as well. Dan Uggla in Atlanta is listed at 205 pounds at 32 years old and has played over 153 games a year the last four seasons. He's an extremely inconsistent fielder at second base, but that's not anything new. The difference between Uggla and Cano, however, is that Uggla is being paid $13.2 million a year through his age-35 season. Robinson Cano is looking for probably almost twice that per year until he's almost 40 years old.
To be worth the sort of contract that Alex Rodriguez is currently rehabbing through, Cano has to stick at second base for at least the next five years, has to remain not only an effective fielder at the position but an above-average-to-exceptional one, has to continue to hit at his career pace and, most importantly, has to play in 145-150 games every year. If the Yankees -- or any team on the open market -- think that Robinson Cano has a reasonable chance of performing like that until he's 35 years old, then they should give him the money and years and hope for the best in his decline phase. But that is tantamount to asking a team to extend a contract in the belief that Robinson Cano will be going to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot.
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From the Yankees' point of view, it is far more reasonable to offer him something like $21 million a year over the next six or seven years, with options or opt-out clauses near the end to provide outs for both sides -- probably still an overpayment, but the Yankees will have at least some money coming off the books. It allows them to take another look at Cano in his mid-to-late thirties and see if he's worth a final True Yankee contract, if they should cut ties, or something in between. But that's not a contract Cano is going to sign without at least seeing if someone like the Los Angeles Dodgers is willing to make the sort of decade-long wager described above, and if the Yankees remain firm on a contract length closer to five years than ten, Cano will test those waters. They should, considering the team's newfound "austerity" and focus of an overall budget under $189 million a year. But the combination of Cano's importance and how short-term this budget crunch is -- New York's already-inked payroll allocations for the 2014 season come in a hair under $87 million -- likely mean that if the Yankees do have to make cuts, it will be to ensure that Cano's contract does fit in the budget, instead of letting him walk.
The most optimistic scenario for fans, then, is that the team is careful to keep lines of dialogue open with Cano, talk in the press about how constructive talks are, and so on. They need to make sure that Cano doesn't feel insulted or lowballed, and to remain involved in the process. Then when Cano does go out and get his big offer, the Yankees have to hope he'll give them a chance to match -- and that the contract is sane enough that New York, with all the resources at its disposal, is willing to do so.
It's an unappealing series of risks for the club, but there's reason for optimism that even if Cano hits the market, he'll come back to the Bronx: the Yankees not only have unequaled brand appeal and are perennial contenders, but Brian Cashman and his staff are perhaps the best in the business. This isn't their first time in the ring with Boras or a superstar. I think the odds are high that Cano remains a New York Yankee for at least another half-decade, and on mostly reasonable terms.
Yankees fans had better hope so, anyway. The next best free agent second baseman next offseason is Kelly Johnson.