Why Did the Mariners Break the Bank for Cano?
In case you’ve been off the grid for the last week or two, allow me to fill you in: the Seattle Mariners appear to be going for it.
After a rocky negotiation process between the club’s General Manager Jack Zduriencik and new agent Jay-Z, the Mariners surprisingly decided to break the bank on a true superstar free agent, locking up Robinson Cano for $240 million over 10 years. And by superstar, I do mean superstar. We’re not talking about Richie Sexson or *shudders* Chone Figgins here.
What Exactly Did the Mariners Buy?
It’s exciting anytime a big ticket free agent goes to a new team, and doubly so when it’s a player as great as Cano. Squarely in the prime of his career, Cano hasn’t had an OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging) percentage below .871 since 2009, and year after year he has been a top-10 player in a smorgasbord of offensive categories. Put simply, Cano is the kind of player the Mariners haven’t had in a long time - perhaps the only names who can come close in recent years are Adrian Beltre, Brett Boone and Alex Rodriguez.
But it comes at a steep price. Giving a 10-year deal to a 31-year-old player invites a lot of risk, as Cano will start to decline in both production and health as he gets into his late 30s. Therefore it's critical that the Mariners get significant production from Cano in the first four or five years of this deal to at least partially justify paying so much money on the back end. Luckily for the team, Cano’s track record shows a stalwart offensive player who has the ability to age more like David Ortiz than Lance Berkman.
Production and WAR
Let's do a little comparison. Since his age 26 season in 2002, David Ortiz has averaged 585 plate appearances, 37 doubles, 33 home runs, 106 RBI, 1 steal, a .291 batting average (BA), .386 on-base percentage (OBP) and a .567 slugging percentage (SLG). Those numbers (per Fangraphs) group him in elite company over that time frame with names like Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Adrian Beltre, to name a few.
Likewise, Cano has been fantastic since his age 26 season in 2009 with averages of 686 plate appearances, 160 games, 45 doubles, 28 home runs, 103 RBI, a .314 BA, .369 OBP and a .530 SLG. As I mentioned earlier, Cano’s numbers place him in the top 10 of most offensive categories. Both guys are truly elite offensive players.
Ortiz does have an edge in the power department, but Cano finished ahead of Ortiz in runs created due to his ability to play every single day. Since 2007, Cano has never played in less than 159 games, and that only happened twice in that span. The man simply doesn't come out of the lineup, which suggests that he either avoids injury well, or plays through them in a productive manner - further suggesting that Cano has the ability to continue his productive hitting as he ages.
And we can’t forget the fact that Cano plays a valuable position - second base - at a solid level: his .991 fielding percentage was good for sixth best at the position last year. It’s certainly possible that the Mariners will move him off of the position later in his career, but for the foreseeable future, Cano should be locked in at the keystone.
What’s more, Cano has consistently been able to drive in a strong number of runs without a reliance on massive home run numbers. Certainly 28 home runs a year is good, but it’s not elite like Cano’s ability to hit for doubles. He’s gone for 41 or more doubles for each of the last five seasons and pounded out 48 twice in that span. That combination should play very well in his new park, and he could even increase his doubles as Safeco Field allowed the seventh-most doubles in the league last year while suppressing the number of home runs allowed to hitters (21st-least home runs allowed per ESPN’s Park Factors).
But don’t worry about Cano’s home run numbers, as the former Yankee possesses terrific strength. He averaged 403.9 feet on his home runs in 2013, and this chart shows how those home runs look with Safeco’s dimensions:
It’s Cano’s consistency and ability to stay healthy and productive without relying on gaudy power or speed numbers that make me think he’ll follow in Big Papi’s footsteps as a stellar offensive producer well into his contract and career.
We can't overlook the fact that the Mariners locked up Cano's 6.84 short-term WAR (his average since 2009) and his estimated 36 WAR over the duration of the contract. Within the parameters of $/WAR, Seattle will get an early discount on Cano's prime years as the market value for one WAR is roughly $6 million (and rising). As Cano declines, Seattle will be left with a poor contract, but this doesn't mean that the contract itself is poor. On a pure $/WAR model, the Mariners are paying roughly $6.7 million per projected WAR ($5 million standard), which seems quite reasonable when accounting for future inflation. In other words, the positive value at the beginning of the contract balances the poor value at the end of the contract.
Why Now and What’s Next?
It’s certainly odd to see a team that has refused to spend money bust open the piggy bank for a 31-year-old player after a putrid 71-91 season that featured a lot of new and young faces, including the promising young middle infield combination of Nick Franklin and Brad Miller. The youth movement seemed to give the franchise a solid direction to move toward, but it also required a long-term view with a lot of growing pains as the team’s best players get older.
Felix Henandez has been nothing short of spectacular despite diminishing velocity on his fastball, and Hisashi Iwakuma has been an absolute beast since coming over from Japan. Both pitchers were in the discussion for American League Cy Young, with Iwakuma finishing as a finalist this year. But Iwakuma is already 32 years old, and Hernandez is 27 with injury concerns between his frequent back spasms, muscle strains and the torque placed on his elbow from throwing his nasty slider.
Furthermore, this is the same Mariners team that cut its payroll every year since 2007 and started the 2013 season with the seventh lowest payroll in baseball (per ESPN) while typically dumping big name players like Cliff Lee instead of signing them.
Well, maybe they were sick of looking up at Oakland (who spends less and wins more) and Texas and decided to make a move in a deep free agent year. Or, as this Seattle Times article points out, “the Mariners front office is plagued by total dysfunction and a lack of leadership.”
Could it be that GM Jack Zduriencik is simply looking to save his job with a splashy move? If that is indeed the motive then he is fortunate that Cano is the type of impact player who could save him.
But let’s assume this isn’t some kind of desperate last gasp from Zduriencik. Let’s assume he and the rest of the front office have a real plan in a pretty deep free agent market.
Now that they’ve signed Cano, they must realize that this is a far different situation than looking long-term and patching things over with one year deals to players like Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez (who had an awesome first half in 2013). They have to realize that their window to contend is open right now, and they have to put all their chips in the middle to maximize their potential. They’ve already got a pair of great starting pitchers, a solid and improving third baseman in Kyle Seager, and an interesting young group of guys in Mike Zunino, Justin Smoak, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders. And now they have Cano. On the other side, their bullpen is young and unsettled, but the team can shore that up with a few parts from the nice crop of relievers on the market.
In fact, the M’s have been rumored to be interested in Joaquin Benoit, though Grant Balfour and Jesse Crain are also solid free agent relievers should Benoit fall through. They have also been linked to Nelson Cruz and Corey Hart as they try to solidify their outfield and balance the lineup’s heavy southpaw tilt. On top of that, there’s steady buzz about a deal for David Price in exchange for Taijuan Walker and the now expendable Nick Franklin. If the Mariners do all of that, they can likely contend after a single offseason, which is extremely impressive. They’ll certainly have the money to throw around with their $2 billion television deal kicking in next year.
Of course, the team could also decide to do little-to-nothing more after signing Cano, in which case we could be looking at the newest version of the Alex Rodriguez-era Texas Rangers. After breaking the bank on the 25-year-old best player in baseball, the Rangers finished with 71, 72 and 73 wins in A-Rod’s three seasons with the team before he opted out and signed with the Yankees. That team featured some good hitters in a young Michael Young, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez along with Mark Teixeira in the last year, but the rest of the lineup wasn’t able to support a bad rotation with an earned run average in the stratosphere.
What Does it All Mean?
Depending on which direction the team decides to take, we are looking at either a three-horse race in the AL West, or a disappointing could-have-been burning giant piles of money as its best players rot. I am hoping the Mariners reel in a big-name player or two and execute the Price trade (which they should, given the sudden expendability of Nick Franklin) over the next few weeks, quickly putting themselves in position for serious playoff contention. It won’t be easy given how good Oakland and Texas have been, but the worst thing the Mariners can do is not commit to trying to win as soon as possible—before Cano slips past his prime.