Is Robinson Cano Playing Hardball or Ready to Bolt Yankees for Biggest Payday?

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Is Robinson Cano Playing Hardball or Ready to Bolt Yankees for Biggest Payday?
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If it wasn't already apparent that Robinson Cano and the New York Yankees won't be coming to an agreement on a new contract in the near future, it should be now.

As star players usually are in these situations, the free-agent-to-be second baseman has been playing hardball with the Yankees for a while now. The writing has been on the wall ever since the winter that Cano will not be taking a discount, and this week he gave his strongest indication yet that he's perfectly willing to shop his services as a free agent over the winter.

If you missed it, Cano let a spoiler slip at a charity event on Monday night. According to Chris Dell of the New York Daily News, the four-time All-Star commented on his contract status by telling reporters that he's going to test free agency “either way at the end of the season."

Cano must have realized that he had said something he probably shouldn't have. When pressed, he backtracked and said, "I’m just saying that I’m not thinking about the contract now."

That's not a bad face-saving line, but there's no undoing that first bit.

Not that it was a shocker, mind you. My surprise level when I first read it was somewhere in the neighborhood of zero. Of course free agency is in Cano's future.

He's at a point in time when star players just don't tend to sign big extensions. Per MLBTradeRumors.com's extension tracker, there's been only one $100 million extension signed in a regular-season month other than April. That was Cole Hamels' $144 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies last July. 

This is not some fluke trend. The closer a star player gets to it, the harder it is for him to resist the siren-like allure of free agency. Especially if said player is in the middle of a money-making season, and the season Cano is having is close enough to being one of those.

He may only have an .850 OPS, but that's not too shabby considering how Cano's lineup protection has consisted largely of over-the-hill has-beens all season. And despite the low OPS, Cano's 16 homers put him on pace to set a new career high. The numbers (see FanGraphs) say his defense has taken a step back this year, but he still makes his share of spectacular plays.

Like so; courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

So even if there was absolutely nothing coming out about Cano's contract situation, the smart money would still be on him testing the free-agent waters at the end of the season. He just so happens to fit a certain mold.

But this being New York and Cano being the best player on the Yankees, the buzz over his contract situation has been pretty much constant. And even before he let that spoiler slip, it was already beginning to sound like free agency is a lock and, by extension, that him heading elsewhere is a real possibility.

Late last week, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that it was "clear [the Yankees and Cano] are nowhere near a deal at this point," making free agency a "very likely outcome." Cano might as well have been verifying Heyman's words when he let that spoiler slip on Monday night.

At the absolute very least, entering free agency is the best way for Cano to light a fire under the Yankees. Once the threat of losing him becomes real, the Yankees may be more willing to make up the difference between what they're offering and what Cano wants. 

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
There is indeed something funny about the thought that Robinson Cano might soon be worth twice as much as David Wright.

The trouble is that that difference, according to Heyman, is massive. Cano might want as much as $275 million in his next contract, while the Yankees would supposedly prefer to give him something closer to David Wright's $138 million deal with the New York Mets.

Cano's is undoubtedly a high-ball figure and the Yankees' is undoubtedly a low-ball figure, but I wonder if the Yankees would draw a do-not-cross line well below the $200 million threshold even if Cano does hit free agency and the threat of losing him does become very clear.

Cano, after all, is on the wrong side of 30, and the Yankees know from what they've gone through with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira that things can go south in a hurry for star players in their 30s. It's not just their guys who can vouch, either, as other players like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are similar cautionary tales for the Yankees to consider.

If the Yankees do draw a line this winter, one thing that's for sure is that they'll be playing the Cano situation much differently than they played A-Rod's situation after the 2007 season.

Hank Steinbrenner got things started by telling The New York Times that the Yankees didn't want A-Rod anymore and "that's the bottom line." But a couple weeks later, Rodriguez had the biggest contract in baseball history even though there didn't seem to be any other serious bidders for his services. 

That's where things could be markedly different for Cano. There aren't many teams out there that can afford him, but we know there's at least one other team that can and might be very interested in striking a deal: the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The best way to put it is this: there's nothing Magic and the Dodgers can't afford.

The Dodgers could decline Mark Ellis' $5.75 million club option and give Cano the $200 million deal he craves. They'll be able to do so even if they first sign Clayton Kershaw to a deal worth over $200 million, as Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly recently told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times that the team conceivably could afford two players with $200 million contracts. 

If you were curious about what $6 billion in TV money can do for you, well, there you go.

The Yankees have plenty of money of their own to toss around, sure, but you have to think they'd be the first to back away from the table in the event of a bidding war with the Dodgers. Both the Yankees and the Dodgers are mega-rich, but there should be no doubt that the Dodgers are the less restrained of the two clubs.

The Yankees' best hope of retaining Cano involves him hitting free agency and the Dodgers either showing little interest or no interest at all. If that happens, Cano's going to have a hard time creating the kind of leverage he needs to squeeze a $200 million contract out of the Yankees and could come back on a relatively modest deal. 

That could happen, but it would frankly be a lot easier to imagine the Dodgers steering clear of Cano if they were doing big things this year and were in good shape heading into the future. But they're not doing big things this year, and we know from their TV deal and their recent habits that they'll do whatever they can to make sure the same fate doesn't befall them again.

For what it's worth, my gut feeling all along has been that Cano is going to end up back on the Yankees in the long run. And since I can only speculate that the Dodgers are going to be more interested in signing him this winter than the Yankees will be, I'm going to stick with that gut feeling.

But whether it's with the Dodgers or with some totally out-of-the-blue dark horse, nobody should be surprised if Cano does sign elsewhere as a free agent. He and the Yankees are a good fit for one another, but it's beyond clear by now that Cano is going to take the best deal he can get.

That deal may not come from the Yankees.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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