By John Perrotto
A group of Seattle Mariners, including Robinson Cano, sat watching television in the visiting clubhouse on Thursday afternoon at Progressive Field in Cleveland in the final minutes before the 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline.
There was a feeling something big was about to happen to help bolster the Mariners' chances of getting to the playoffs, and everyone was curious to see what it might be. Seattle wound up landing two outfielders, first Chris Denorfia from San Diego, then Austin Jackson from Detroit in a three-way trade that saw the Tigers acquire ace left-hander David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Austin can really help us," said left-handed reliever Charlie Furbush, who was also teammates with Jackson in Detroit. "It's another sign that ownership is serious about winning. There are expectations now."
The expectations are there because of Cano, the star second baseman signed to a 10-year, $240 millon contract as a free agent last December. While his power numbers aren't on par with what they were during his stellar nine-year run with the New York Yankees, everyone with the Mariners points to Cano being the catalyst for a return to contention for a franchise that hasn't been to the postseason since 2001.
At 56-53, the Mariners are 10 1/2 games behind the Oakland Athletics in the American League West, but just three games in back of the Toronto Blue Jays for the second wild card.
"It changed everything when we signed him," Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager said. "I think everyone was ready to get to spring training that day. There was a feeling that things were going to be different."
Relevant has become one of the world's most overused words. However, it is hard to describe what signing Cano meant to the Mariners besides saying it brought them relevancy.
"He's a great player, everyone knows that," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. "But signing him meant so much more than just adding a superstar player. He has lifted the way our entire organization is perceived around the baseball. We gained in stature as a franchise when we signed Robby. It made everyone wearing a Seattle Mariners' uniform stick out their chest a little more and be even a little bit prouder."
More than two-thirds of the way into the season, Cano admits there are times when it still seems foreign to be playing for the Mariners.
"Everything still seems new to me because I had been with the Yankees my whole career and that's all I knew," he said. "I've had to adjust to a new everything -- a new ballpark, new fans, a new city. It has not been an easy adjustment. It's taken some time."
Cano joined the Yankees' organization on Jan. 5, 2001 when he signed as an international amateur free agent from his native Dominican Republic. He reached the major leagues four years later as a 22-year-old and spent nine seasons with the Yankees, playing in five All-Star games while winning five Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves.
It seemed certain he would be with the Yankees for the entirety of his career and that the franchise would find a spot for his plaque in Monument Park after retirement. After all, Tino Martinez is now immortalized in Yankee Stadium and Cano contributed much more to the Yankees than the retired first baseman.
Things changed, though, when free agency opened last winter. The Yankees offered Cano $175 million over seven years, but the Mariners stealthily had him visit Seattle, then offered the massive $240 million deal. When the Yankees wouldn't budge, Cano chose the Mariners.
The move shocked everyone, including McClendon, who had been a hired a month earlier after spending the last eight seasons on the Detroit Tigers' coaching staff. General manager Jack Zdurienick had not even mentioned the possibility of pursuing Cano to McClendon after selecting him to succeed Eric Wedge.
"It all came together really fast with Robby," McClendon said. "He came to town and Jack and the front office put on a heckuva presentation for him. It was really impressive. I could tell by the look on Robby's face that he knew we were serious. I had a good feeling he was serious about us."
The 31-year-old Cano is hitting .331 through 104 games and has a .392 on-base percentage, which would easily be the best mark of his career. However, he has hit just seven home runs and posted a .454 slugging percentage following five straight seasons of at least 25 homers and a .516 SLG. The switch in home ballparks from Yankee Stadium and its short porch in right field to the more spacious Safeco Field has had an effect.
"The ball doesn't carry as well in Seattle," Cano said. "You're not going to hit a lot of home runs there, but I know I can help the team by doing other things. My average is good. I'm getting on base."
The addition of Cano hasn't moved the needle -- the Space Needle? -- for the Mariners' offense from a statistical standpoint. Seattle is scoring 3.81 runs per game, which is last in the 15-team AL and 26th among the 30 major league teams. In fact, that average is slightly down from last year's 3.85 mark.
Yet Seager feels Cano has still had a positive impact on the offense, even if the raw power numbers aren't what they once were.
"He's one of the best hitters in baseball and he's a real presence in the lineup," Seager said. "What he's done is help take some pressure off everyone else. Last year, it seemed like everyone thought the weight of the offense was on their shoulders."
The Mariners believe the offense will improve down the stretch with the addition of Jackson, Denorfia and designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who was reacquired in a July 24 trade with the Minnesota Twins after spending last season with Seattle. The poor offense has been offset by outstanding pitching and defense as the Mariners have allowed a major-league-best 3.33 runs a game, giving them a plus-52 run differential.
It is that pitching, led at top of the rotation by right-handers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, that gives the Mariners the belief they can be dangerous if they reach the postseason. Getting to the playoffs would exceed Cano's expectations in his first year in the Pacific Northwest.
"I thought we would improve this year and then make a run next year," he said. "We've played pretty good baseball and we're getting a little better. We have a group of young guys with talent, some future Hall of Famers like King Felix and some good veteran players. It's a good mix. We've got a shot."
If the Mariners get to postseason then their large investment in Cano will have paid a quick dividend.
"He's going to be the guy to lead us there if we get there," McClendon said. "And we plan on him being the guy who leads us there many times."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, USA Today Sports Weekly, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.