My Thoughts on Robinson Cano and the Mariners
A week or two ago, Jim Bowden speculated that the Mariners could steal Robinson Cano from the Yankees with a massive offer. I think most of us shrugged it off as nothing more than conjecture. Today, though, speculation of what might be possible turned into a suggestion that the Mariners are actually attempting to sign Cano, as Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York reported that the Mariners had “emerged as major players” for the game’s best second baseman. So, let’s talk about Cano and the Mariners for a second.
Robinson Cano is a very good player, having been worth +5 WAR or more in each of the last four seasons. In fact, over that four year span, he ranks #2 in WAR behind only Miguel Cabrera. A decent defensive second baseman who can hit like a first baseman is an absurdly valuable thing. Robinson Cano is asking for a huge contract because he’s one of the game’s very best players. The Mariners need more talent than they have, and no free agent would inject more talent into the organization faster than Cano would.
So, yes, Robinson Cano is a fit for the Mariners, even though they already have one second baseman too many. If signing Robinson Cano for a reasonable price becomes a reality, you don’t bother worrying about what you’re going to do with Nick Franklin and Dustin Ackley. The goal isn’t to find an outfielder or a #3 pitcher or a closer; the goal is to get better. Robinson Cano would make the Mariners a lot better.
And the Mariners have money to spend. Enough money to make Cano a big time offer. Enough money to offer more than the Yankees are reportedly offering. It’s an unusual situation, but the Mariners are in a position to outbid the Yankees. This is what happens when you have two players under contract. If the Mariners want to make Cano choose between money and geography, they can. And I’d imagine a lot of people will want them to do exactly that, noting that Cano would give the Mariners credibility again, and would signify to everyone that they’re not just perpetually rebuilding. I expect that there are a lot of people who are very excited about the idea of the Mariners pursuing Robinson Cano.
Personally, I’m less excited. Less excited because I don’t think Robinson Cano is actually all that likely to be interested in playing for Seattle. Less excited because I think the gap between the offer the Mariners would have to give him and what the Yankees are willing to make is likely going to have to be so enormous that any deal for Cano would automatically restrict the organization from upgrading at other positions. Less excited because part of the failures of the front office the last two winters has been the seductive possibility of paying big money for a star, and by the time they realized it wasn’t happening, better alternatives were no longer available.
Two years ago, it was Prince Fielder. The M’s waited around for Fielder’s price to come down, keeping their options open in case Scott Boras decided to engage them on a deal for a contract south of $200 million. Fielder stayed on the free agent market until January 26th, and the Mariners basically sat out most of the winter waiting to see what might happen with Fielder. They skipped out on other young players who could have helped both short term and long term — such as Jose Reyes and Yu Darvish — and waited too long to get into the trade market, eventually flipping Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero three days before Fielder signed with the Tigers.
Last year, it was first Josh Hamilton, then Justin Upton. They went after Hamilton first, using the winter meetings as a chance to make a run at the best power hitter on the free agent market. Finally, on December 15th, they learned that Hamilton would be signing with the Angels instead, so they switched gears and tried to make a big trade with Arizona to bring Upton to Seattle. They finally reached an agreement on the players with Arizona on January 10th, only to have Upton use his no-trade clause to block the deal. Again, they found themselves in January without their preferred options, and moved on to trading John Jaso for Michael Morse instead.
By all reasonable accounts, Robinson Cano’s free agency is going to take a while. The Mariners aren’t going to sign him this week, or even next week, most likely. He’s not going to just rush into changing teams without testing the Yankees resolve to keep him. Odds are pretty good that his preferred option is to re-sign with New York, so the only way the Mariners are going to convince him to come west is to make the financial difference so large that he can’t turn it down. But the size of that gap won’t be known until the Yankees make their last and best offer. And they haven’t done that yet. They probably won’t do that any time soon. The Yankees don’t need to get Robinson Cano resolved before they can move on with their off-season.
So, Cano’s representatives will keep flirting with the Mariners. If they’re going to get the Yankees to raise their offer, they need a reason to make them do so, and no other team has shown any serious interest yet. The Mariners interest in Cano is useful to Cano’s representatives, even if Cano has no real interest in signing here. It’s in their interest to drag this thing out; it is not in the Mariners best interest to be involved in another empty pursuit of a splashy signing.
And really, it might not even be in their best interest to sign Cano. The Yankees reported first offer was for $160 million over seven years, with reports suggesting they’d push up to $175 million, which would put them at $25 million per season. For the Mariners to convince Cano to leave New York, they’re not going to get him for $180 million or $190 million. He’s not going from New York to Seattle for an extra $2 or $3 million per year. If they’re going to get Cano to really consider leaving New York, they’re going to have to guarantee those last few years where New York is saying no. They’re going to have to go to eight or nine or maybe even 10 years. They’re going to have to come in well north of $200 million, maybe even pushing towards $250 million. That’s the kind of offer that would turn this from a flirtation into an actual possibility.
But Robinson Cano is not worth $250 million. Last month, I wrote a piece about long term deals at FanGraphs, and used an example of a nine year, $225 million contract for Cano to illustrate the changing value of the deal over the life of the contract. For the estimate, I started Cano as a +6 WAR player, and a $225 million contract still came out to $7 million per projected win, a little higher than the going rate for free agents right now. But, in reality, Cano’s probably more of a +5 WAR player than a +6 WAR player in 2014, and it’s more reasonable to start him from a lower threshold. If we repeat that table but lower the estimate of his performance a bit, we get this.
|Year ?||Salary||Projected WAR||$/WAR|
Simply shifting Cano from the starting spot of a +6 WAR player to a +5 WAR player drives the price from $7 million per win to nearly $10 million per win. And that’s without the 10th year, which would be projected to be a total waste at this point. If they had to go to 10/250 to get him, you’d be looking at $11 million per win, almost double what other teams are paying. You can argue that the Mariners have to pay more to get free agents to sign here, but they shouldn’t have to pay double. When a free agent is costing you that much of a premium, you’re better off just reallocating your dollars to players who don’t have that kind of leverage and will take something closer to market rates to play here.
For $200+ million, Cano might make the Mariners better by five or six wins next year. But they could also buy five or six wins for a whole hell of a lot less than $200 million by pursuing players who don’t require crazy overpays to leave the Yankees. I’m not arguing that the Mariners shouldn’t sign Cano because I don’t want the M’s to spend money; I just want them to spend their money well enough so that it’s not Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, and 23 piles of crap.
I’d write more, but news is breaking that the Yankees are about to sign Jacoby Ellsbury, so now i have to go write about that. So here’s a very brief conclusion. Mariners, I get why you like Robinson Cano. I get why he’s pretending to like you back. Don’t fall for it, though. Don’t be the nerd doing the pretty girl’s homework in hopes that she’s going to realize that the jocks are stupid and you’re the one for her. You’re just going to end up in the friend zone. Go find someone who is actually into you for you, and not someone who wants to use you for your money.