It would be difficult to argue that for the past three seasons, the best everyday player on the Yankees hasn’t been one of their pricey acquisitions like Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira or even their Hall of Fame stalwart, Derek Jeter.
Since 2010, that title has been held by homegrown, Dominican-born second baseman Robinson Cano, who’s been the linchpin in a potent Yankee offense.
At age 30, Cano is entering the final year of a team-friendly six-year contract he agreed to back in 2008. Though he’ll earn a healthy $15 million in 2013, Cano, with super-agent Scott Boras on his flank, has his sights set on an historic payday when he hits free agency next winter.
Though Cano is sometimes overlooked and under-appreciated in a clubhouse full of former superstars and electric personalities, his numbers the past three seasons have been among the very best in baseball.
That's not to say he wasn't outstanding before, but since 2010 Cano has elevated his game to a level which few middle infielders have reached. The Yankee second baseman has earned three top-six AL MVP finishes and amassed an fWAR of 20.1, tying him for second among all position players for that stretch. His .311 batting average places eleventh and his 142 wRC+ and his .539 slugging percentage rank 12th.
Cano has conquered aspects of the game that were once considered weaknesses. He posted a career-high walk rate of 8.8 percent in 2012 and his UZR since 2010 is a respectable 6.0. He’s transformed himself from a below-average defender into a two-time Gold Glove winner.
So how is any of this a problem? Cano’s great at baseball—the Yankees have millions of dollars lying between the sofa cushions at their executive offices—pay the man whatever he wants. That’s how it’s always worked before.
Thanks to higher luxury taxes imposed by baseball’s new CBA, the Yankees are, for the first time in generations, operating with fiscal austerity in hopes of dropping their payroll below the luxury tax threshold of $189 million by 2014.
With A-Rod, Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia accounting for roughly $72 million in average annual value for years to come, the Yankees are left with little flexibility to chase free agents.
Cano isn’t looking to take a hometown discount the way Evan Longoria and David Wright did when they agreed to long-term extensions this fall. You don’t hire Boras as your agent unless you’re planning to extract every last dollar.
Cano may not get an A-Rod/Albert Pujols style decade-long pact, but he’ll come pretty close.
With no other major stars on the market next year, unless Jacoby Ellsbury stays healthy and channels 2011, Cano is likely to land an eight- or even nine-year deal worth between $23 and $25 million per season.
Cano’s situation places the Yankees in an unenviable bind.
Signing him means committing close to $100 million annually to just four players. The team would need to skimp on other serious needs.
After next season, three-fifths of the rotation will be free agents, with Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda both contemplating retirement on a yearly basis.
Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson will also hit the market, Ichiro Suzuki will be 41 and the Yankees still have no starting catcher. Then there’s A-Rod, who’s moving closer to a future as a full-time DH with each mounting injury.
While Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos and Tyler Austin may be ready to contribute by 2014, the rest of the team’s top prospects are father away.
A $189 million roster that features Cano may not contain the depth or the overall talent to which Yankee fans have grown accustomed, but the damage done by letting the lifetime .308 hitter walk would be more significant.
Under the rules of the CBA, the Yankees can raise their payroll above the tax threshold again in 2015 without paying the humongous penalties they’d be charged in 2014.
Waiting and replacing Cano at that point won’t be an option.
Thanks to increased revenues around baseball, more stars are being locked up by their teams, and fewer impact players become free agents in their primes. The 2015 free agent market is even weaker than its 2014 counterpart, with no real middle-of-the-order bats in its midst.
Letting Cano walk would create a void that would linger for years.
One radical idea would be to trade Cano now—get value for him—hopefully for a package that could fill multiple holes in the future. In reality, that’s just not an option.
Cano’s trade market would be limited, thanks to his impending free agency and his association with Boras. With A-Rod gone until June or July and a roster whose median age rivals the cast of the Golden Girls, the Yankees simply can’t compete in an improved AL East without Cano at the heart of their order.
Though budget-conscious may be an unfamiliar state for the pinstripes, they’re not going to punt a season—not when they could still be very good if things break (or don’t break, more accurately) right…not when there are 52,000 tickets to sell every night.
Some argue that handing out eight-, nine- and 10-year deals has caused more problems than it’s solved for the Yankees.
That’s true, but also unavoidable.
Thanks to their need to compete every year and the impatience of the New York media and fans—especially those willing to spring for luxury boxes and champions’ suites—the Yankees don’t have the opportunity to build a team with young, cheap players.
They need to sign—and keep—free agents, and to do so they need to pay market value. That these deals turn into albatrosses down the line is something that has to be accepted in return for immediate production.