Addressing Literally Everything About Robinson Cano
Let’s just face it: we’re hopeless. We’re all hopeless, and by definition there’s not really anything we can do about it. We have no prayer of being able to properly understand a ten-year, $240-million contract. We’re not wired for the right perspective; we can’t balance the long-term against the short-term. Executives have the same problem. Maybe I shouldn’t say problem — perhaps natural deficiency. We’re short-term thinkers. We have to be. We want what’s immediately satisfying, and it’s worth acknowledging that by the end of the Robinson Cano contract, the people in charge won’t be the people in charge anymore. Even good executives tend not to last that long, at least below the ownership level. Who the hell can see ten years? Who the hell can see three years? Who the hell can see a month? How far back in your own life do you have to go to find the oldest point at which you figured you’d be where you are today? And there’s literally nothing you know better than you.
We all have a sense of what’s right and wrong, long-term. We all know on some level not to have the extra slice of pizza. Many of you have probably set up retirement accounts. Many of you probably haven’t contributed enough. Even when we know we’re doing the right thing for the future, there’s no immediate reward for that, and we naturally want what’s rewarding now. It’s why we splurge on unnecessary things and then justify it by saying it’s been a hard week, or we’ll save money later, or what’s one little extra expense? We suck and we can’t not suck. Even when we know what’s absolutely right, it can be unappealing if we don’t get a short-term benefit. Save money for retirement and you actually lose money, effectively, today.
The Robinson Cano contract is probably worse than you think, and on some level you probably know that. You probably know, objectively, that these things generally turn into problems, sometimes ultra fast. This is less like the first Alex Rodriguez contract, and more like the second one, the second one that’s causing even the New York Yankees major problems. This could conceivably look bad for five, six, even seven years. But those are years in the future, and we don’t know what those situations are going to be so we can’t hope to relate to them. The feeling right now is that the Mariners added one of the best players in baseball, by surprise. They did that! Cano is outstanding! He won’t be, later, when he’s still expensive, but we can’t approach this with the right balance. Even if we can put the right balance on paper, it isn’t what most of us will feel.
I mean, I know this probably isn’t wise, and I’m still damned excited. How couldn’t I be? Cano is as good as a position-player version of Felix. Hard to make a bigger upgrade with one single transaction. Instantly, we get to think about the playoffs again, even if the odds remain slim. They’re considerably less slim, and the Mariners aren’t finished augmenting. This is the feeling the Royals pursued a year ago, and it’s a real thing. Buzz is a real thing, and everyone in Seattle is talking about the Mariners today while the Seahawks look like they can practically coast to the Super Bowl.
This is one of the very biggest events in Mariners history. It was huge when the Mariners re-signed Felix, and it was huge when the Mariners re-signed Felix again, but Felix was already a Mariner, and for some reason his loyalty has never wavered from the start. Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson were big, but this is bigger than both of those combined. This is Seattle taking a superstar away from New York. It’s a money thing, of course. It’s not like the Mariners are more appealing than the Yankees as a team to play for at the moment. Cano doesn’t have a particular bond with Seattle yet — he signed for the biggest deal. The Mariners knew that, in order to lure Cano, they’d have to out-bid the Yankees by an awful lot. But now that this has happened, maybe next time the Mariners don’t need to out-bid the competition by so much. In the minds of players, this does make Seattle more alluring, because they’ve attracted a star and now they’re trying to win. It’s a factor, even if we can’t really measure it.
And while some of the above words might seem skeptical or cynical, to be perfectly honest I don’t think this is a catastrophe, per se. No, I wouldn’t have wanted to pay Cano $240 million over ten guaranteed years. He’s going to be 40. 40 is old and Cano is going to be not good by then. But I would have been okay offering Cano a hell of a lot, so it isn’t about the total commitment — it’s about the difference between the total commitment and a reasonable big commitment. There are ways Cano makes sense as a $200-million man. There are ways he makes sense as an eight- or nine-year acquisition. The Mariners aren’t wasting $240 million. They might fail to get a return on some fraction of that.
The key to making this sensible, though, is to get even better, right now. Cano doesn’t make good sense on this contract on this team, if this team were finished building. With a deal like this, the value is toward the front. The idea is to win toward the front. So now the Mariners have to try to win toward the front, while Cano is still good and not a squawking albatross. Cano has to be one of several moves as the Mariners target a window between 2014-2016 or whatever. It’s not like it would be impossible for the Mariners to win around a declining Cano, because he’ll be one guy taking up one fraction of the payroll, but this has to move the plan up. The Mariners are signaling that it is time to win.
And they’re busy, at this very moment, trying to do other things. The Mariners aren’t close to done, as silly as that might sound on the heels of giving out a quarter of a billion dollars. They’re going to address the rotation and the lineup and probably the bullpen, and while maybe this isn’t the absolute ideal plan, there are ways to go about this more smart and less smart. For better or worse, the Mariners now have their current team and their current budget with the current landscape of available players. They need to build a contender, and it isn’t impossible.
I should hope they don’t trade Taijuan Walker and more for David Price. One of the potential consequences of going for it is the front office making a bad trade. That wouldn’t be the fault of the Cano acquisition, but they would be related. My preference, if anything, would be to overpay for a free agent. It would be great if they could avoid overpaying, and a guy like Bartolo Colon has my interest. I have little interest in adding to 2014 by subtracting talent from 2014 at the same time. Like to keep Walker. Like to keep James Paxton. Seems like Nick Franklin is all but gone, given, you know, but you can stomach losing Nick Franklin given a good enough return. There’s a Robinson Cano in the way.
Basically, there’s reason for short-term hope, now, but the front office has plenty of work still to do. There are good and bad potential approaches, and there are approaches that would leave the team in better and worse shape later on. I should hope that the Mariners leave themselves enough for the future, even going for it today, and that’s still possible, but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t fearful. This is a volatile time, with plenty of emotional upside and mirroring emotional downside. This is salvageable. This is exciting. This could be a mess that leaves the organization in tatters.
Something I wouldn’t feel right ignoring — free agents tend to be lousy investments, on average. At least, underwhelming investments. A theory is that free agents are a selected group of guys their old teams let go. I don’t know exactly how negotiations went with Cano, but he’s getting ten years and $240 million from the Mariners, and word is the Yankees wouldn’t go past seven years and about $175 million. Cano, in New York, was a homegrown superstar. The Mariners beat the Yankees by three years and something like $65 million. What does it say, that the Yankees themselves didn’t want to come close to this, despite their financial strength? Maybe they’re just overly conservative. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they’re absolutely right, and the Mariners will be in some long-term trouble. Even if Cano makes the Mariners more relevant today, how long does that effect last, if he gradually declines and becomes a problem a few years down the road? Nothing about this is permanent. It will all come down to player and team performance, in the end.
It’s always my preference to overpay in money instead of talent, given the condition of necessary overpayment. As a friend said a few days ago, giving away talent is final. The Mariners are rich, and they ought to get richer, and they say they’re boosting payroll. Even in the worst-case scenario, the Mariners can afford the Cano contract, and he won’t sink the organization. Individual players can’t really do that. If Cano sucks in 2018, and he’s getting paid $24 million, and the Mariners’ payroll is in the low nine figures, that still leaves enough flexibility that Cano can’t shoulder all of the blame. These things get tricky when they add up, and people exaggerate an individual contract’s ability to cripple. It will be bad if Cano gets bad ahead of schedule. In turn, that would simply require that the Mariners be better with their remaining money, if they want to not be bad too. That would be on whoever’s in charge.
And maybe Cano ages extremely gracefully. By the end of his deal, his salary won’t be worth what it looks like in today’s money. Everybody understands, even Cano himself, that ten years from now he’ll be a shell of what he is at the moment. Everybody knows he’s going to get worse, instead of get better. No one knows how he’ll get worse, and everyone knows he’s starting from a lofty level of talent. This is justifiable. This is enormous.
And this is risky, and it’s going to lead to subsequent risks. All that’s left to do for the moment is hope that the front office does a good job the next couple weeks. There are ways to make the Mariners good, around Cano and Felix Hernandez. There are ways to make them good that don’t involve giving up too many present and future assets. Right now, they’re on the bubble of wild-card contention, and more upgrades could put them in the thick of things in the AL West. The Mariners are a real baseball team again. Now it’s a matter of making sure that lasts.