The New York Yankees, sitting at 41-34 as of Tuesday, June 25, have a myriad of short-term and long-term issues to deal with, both on and off the field.
Their issues include:
- Surviving the 2013 AL East gauntlet;
- Keeping their 2014 payroll under their team-mandated $189 million cap;
- Handling the latest Alex Rodriguez steroid tie deftly;
- Hoping their old, iconic star Derek Jeter can return to help in the second half of the season.
Oh yes, and somewhere tied among finances, brand recognition and winning on the field lies Robinson Cano's impending free agency.
The best second baseman in the sport is eligible to hit the open market at the conclusion of the 2013 postseason and is poised to secure a gigantic contract. According to Jon Heyman of CBSSports, Cano is now less likely to be amicable to an agreement than he seemed to be when he switched agency allegiances.
As the franchise grunts through the inevitable decline of aging stars on long-term, lucrative deals, the question hangs over New York: Will Brian Cashman and the Yankees brass be more or less likely to give Cano the contract he wants in light of what we know about older, declining players? And how does his importance to the roster change the equation?
Before assessing Cano's resume and worthiness of a deal in excess of $175 million, let's remember where the Yankees were in the aftermath of the 2007 season: hamstrung and held hostage by Camp Rodriguez.
In other words, when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract during the 2007 World Series, New York was between a rock and a hard place. Their best player was coming off of a ridiculous MVP campaign (.314/.422/.645/1.067, 54 HR) while enjoying good health and projecting to break many all-time records, as he was asking for the biggest contract in the history of the sport.
Despite objections from Cashman reported by the New York Post (h/t NBC Sports), ownership won out and Rodriguez was re-signed.
Now? That deal is an albatross that is sinking the Yankees from a financial and public relations perspective.
While Cano isn't the kind of player Rodriguez was in his best days, he's still a dynamic, middle-of-the-order hitter from the second base position who looks even better in the context of the current Yankees' lineup.
Heading into play on Tuesday, the Yankees had only outscored three American League teams (Kansas City, Seattle, Chicago), while receiving below-average production at shortstop, first base, catcher, third base and left field. Even if Jeter, Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira return from injury later this summer, the Bronx Bombers of old will cease to exist in 2013.
Of course, Cano, although not having his best season, is carrying the offense at times. He is one hot streak away from his typical numbers and a good bet to receive AL MVP consideration if he can have a big second half and carry New York into, or near, the postseason.
Despite opposing pitchers and managers devising strategies that won't allow Cano to beat them single-handedly, the impending free agent has taken the high road, showing enough discipline in the face of trying to do too much at the plate.
In a lineup full of mediocre-to-porous protection, Cano is seeing fewer pitches to drive, yet not chasing at a high rate. In fact, Cano's walk rate is at a career high, but he has only watched his strikeout rate rise slightly above where it has fallen in each of the past two seasons.
Last Saturday, Tampa Bay walked Cano four times, only allowing the star hitter to record one official at-bat. Right now, Cano looks like the type of hitter who is unconcerned with posting career numbers in order to secure a contract.
When it comes time for Cashman, Jay-Z, Yankees ownership and Cano to sit down and discuss contract numbers, his 2013 stats will play a role, but not as much as they have in the past.
From the Yankee perspective, they won't allow themselves to be suckered into an A-Rod 2.0 deal, namely paying a decade's worth of fees for one transcendent season of a prime-aged player.
From Cano's perspective, a big second half can be that same Rodriguez chip, but a "down" year by his standards could speak volumes about his protection in the batting order and make his numbers look even better by comparison.
At the end of the 2013 season, Cano will continue to stand alone atop the Yankees' roster. He's the best player on the team and one of the best 10 position players in the game, as he is poised to be rewarded with a contract that suits those facts.
When the Yankees make their best offer, expect them to value his current contributions, factor in the past and look towards the future. If Cano is steadfast in receiving a contract in excess of eight years, New York might forgo the demands, regardless of how important Cano can be to the lineup or brand.
However, unlike with Rodriguez in 2007, there won't be many impact free agents littering the market in the next few years who can replace his bat.
Cashman can drag out negotiations to a point of fiscal responsibility, but Cano's representation will likely have a trump card during the talks: copies of the 2013 Yankees lineup with Cano's name crossed out.
For a franchise committed to qualifying for the postseason on a yearly basis, it could be too much to ignore.
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