There are times when it makes sense for a baseball team to spend a lot of money -- even overspend -- on one specific player.
At the time, for instance, it made sense for the Detroit Tigers to give Prince Fielder a 9 year, $214 million contract, because the Tigers were trying to win a World Series in the next few years and their owner was willing to swallow the dead weight at the end of the deal in order to improve the team's hitting in the short term. It made sense for New York Yankees, just last week, to throw over $150 million at Masahiro Tanaka, even though he'd never faced MLB hitters and the Yankees didn't even get to conduct their own physical, because the Yankees desperately need help now in their rotation, in order to get them back into the playoffs. It even made sense when the Nationals threw a seven-year, $126 million deal at outfielder Jayson Werth in 2010 -- that contract did as much to establish that the Nationals and their ownership intended to be meaningful players in free agency as it did to get them a right fielder.
None of those moves in and of itself fully completed a team. The Tigers at the time still needed to add one or two starters, the Yankees still have issues with their infield and the Nationals' rotation has been completely overhauled since Werth's first season. But they did indicate a larger plan, a goal the team was working towards -- instead of just spending money to spend money.
And, now that the offseason is more or less complete, that's what the Robinson Cano contract in Seattle feels like: A move without a larger plan behind it. Days after the deal was inked, the Mariners indicated that they were basically done spending big money for the rest of the offseason, and they demonstrated that through the rest of their winter signings: $6 million for one year of Corey Hart trying to stay healthy in right field or at first (with incentives that could, but likely will not, take the contract up to $13 million); $1 million to centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez on a similar make-good contract; backup catcher John Buck; and... that's about it. The only notable name the Mariners traded for was Logan Morrison, who projects to be an even less useful first baseman/corner outfielder/designated hitter than Hart.
While I'm a fan of the Seattle rotation and think it could be quite good this year, outside of Cano the Mariners lineup remains essentially a wasteland.
Assuming that the right fielder, first baseman, and designated hitter are Hart, Morrison, and Justin Smoak in no particular order (Smoak is the only one of the bunch that doesn't play outfield), the Mariners are looking at either unknown or sub-par offensive production from everywhere on the field except third base, second base, and centerfield -- Cano, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders are the closest thing this team has now to an offensive core. The team is hoping that Brad Miller can both stick at shortstop and keep hitting well there at the major league level, and that catcher Mike Zunino takes a step forward at the plate next year, but both of those are far from sure things.
No matter how good the pitching is, a team that's fielding a lineup with one elite bat, two plausibly solid bats and then a rotating cast of old or hurt designated hitters and unproven prospects is probably not going to score a lot of runs -- although likely more than last year's version, which was basically the same, minus the elite bat. But Seattle scored the ninth-fewest runs per game in baseball last year, and it's not certain that Hart and Morrison will actually match the production the team got from Raul Ibanez and Kendry Morales in 2013.
It's hard to even view the Cano deal as the sort of free-agent signing statement that the Werth deal was with the Nationals. While Jayson Werth was overpaid by Washington in both money and years -- and it was clear that it was an overpayment at the time -- he wasn't overpaid to the point that his deal would prevent the Nationals from signing anyone else. Meanwhile, Robinson Cano is making so much money that his yearly salary combined with Felix Hernandez's take up more than half of a $90-95 million payroll, giving the Mariners very little flexibility to further build the team around those two. There's also the context of the move: The Werth deal was brokered with the blessing of an active and involved ownership that wanted to make a point. The Cano deal was brokered during a chaotic transitional period in the Mariners front office, just weeks after the death of their owner and with the team president set to retire in January, with no clear succession plan in place and a general manager, Jack Zduriencik, whose recent tenure has been marked by people publicly wondering if he's going to be fired. In that sort of environment, any sort of statement signing is going to fall flat.
But while the Cano deal does not, in retrospect, look like a good one given what happened over the rest of the offseason, getting a player of Robinson Cano's caliber is never bad. The Mariners can still build around him and the team's rotation in the future -- though I think it may take a change in the Seattle front office to find the creativity to do that, given the dueling anchors of Cano and Hernandez's contracts. And the sooner that creativity is found, the better: Neither Cano nor Hernandez will be elite forever.