As the 2013 Major League Baseball postseason captivates fans around the country, New York Yankees fans are sitting out the pitch-by-pitch excitement of October for the first time since 2008. If the team is going to get back to the postseason in 2014, many roster questions will need to be answered in the offseason.
Most pressing: Robinson Cano's impeding free agency.
With a late October birthday on the horizon, the soon-to-be 31-year-old second baseman isn't just one of the best players in the sport, he's the best player in pinstripes and one of the most productive second baseman in the history of the sport.
If not for a few very important variables, Cano and the Yankees would have an easy long-term marriage planned out before a potential ceremony to unveil a plaque for the second baseman in Monument Park sometime around the year 2025. During Brian Cashman's end of season press conference last week, he alluded to just that.
Of course, there are those variables. Before declaring what the Yankees maximum offer to Cano should be over the next few months, we need to dissect what he's worth, how much the Yankees can afford to allot him in their quest to stay under $189 million and just how risky it is to pay second basemen over the age of 30.
First, there's the issue of Cano's worth. When an ESPN report surfaced in late September suggesting that Cano's agency, led by Jay-Z, floated out the idea of a 10-year, $305 million deal to the Yankees, baseball fans in New York audibly gasped. Certainly, there was no way the Yankees should pay that for any player, let alone Robinson Cano.
While the idea of Cano becoming baseball's first $300 million man is strange, his agency does actually have merit in starting the negotiation at that high point. As the following chart shows, Cano's three-year bWAR (Baseball-Reference WAR) heading into his contract is higher than all but two of the highest paid position players in history: Alex Rodriguez (twice) and Albert Pujols.
Due to a combination of elite hitting ability (125 career OPS+), excellent up-the-middle defense and rare durability (160 games played per season), Cano has been worth 21.6 WAR to the Yankees over the last three seasons. Compared to the three-year WAR figures for Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Joe Mauer and Matt Kemp prior to their contracts, Cano is rightfully marketing himself as one of the best players of a generation.
Although the initial $305 million mark would surpass every recent highly paid star, including Rodriguez and Pujols, never has the game been more flush with cash. As Hardball Talk chronicled in December, the revenue continues to rise. Cano isn't a bigger star than either Rodriguez or Pujols were, respectively, when cashing in, but he's close enough to ask for money in line with the flowing revenue streams in the game now.
Speaking of revenue and deep pockets, the Yankees ability to carry a payroll well over $200 million shouldn't preclude them from paying Cano market value, yet there's a catch. As the team continues it's quest to stay under the $189 million luxury tax for 2014, every dollar counts.
Despite Hal Steinbrenner, during a sit down with Joel Sherman of the New York Post, prioritizing contending over saving, the benefits of staying under $189 million for 2014 are too tantalizing to quit now.
Simply put, New York can reset their luxury tax down to the smallest bracket starting in 2015 if they don't exceed $189 million for the 2014 payroll. That means Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer could be be in play next winter or David Price in the following offseason without the ramifications of the highest tax bracket.
Normally, the 'New York Yankees payroll' and 'spending limit' aren't used in the same sentence, but with uncertainty around Alex Rodriguez's impending suspension and payroll allotment in 2014 and holes to be filled in the starting pitching staff, the Yankees need to be wary of overpaying Cano early in the offseason. If they did, a difficult choice would have to be made: surpass the luxury tax to compete in 2014 or stay under with major roster holes around Cano.
Value and budget are basic tenants of every negotiation, but in Robinson Cano's case, his position on the diamond complicates the matter further. Take another look at that chart above. Notice a trend? Not one second baseman on the list.
Part of the reason: the aging curve for second baseman is stark.
As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs brilliantly dissected in March, Cano is in some excellent company among the great second baseman of all time, but that distinction is cause for some concern.
Great second baseman, including Joe Morgan, Craig Biggio and Rod Carew have seen steep drops in production as they entered their mid-30s. In general, players tend to decline, but second baseman can fall off the map suddenly.
Unlike is the case with a great shortstop like Rodriguez, there isn't a safe landing spot for Cano to change positions down the line. It's hard to imagine his bat failing him anytime soon, but part of his value is hitting at a high clip while manning second base.
It's possible that Cano can take over at first base for Mark Teixeira in the Bronx after the 2016 season, but that switch would negate Cano's best defensive asset: a strong, accurate throwing arm.
After sorting through Robinson Cano's place among the highest paid position players, assessing the Yankees payroll ramifications and the risk around second baseman as they age, it's clear that the front office in the Bronx is between a rock and hard place this winter.
They need Cano, but at what cost? $300 million won't happen, but $200 million isn't outrageous for a player of this caliber.
A seven-year, $185 million deal would place Cano just below Derek Jeter on the all-time list of highest paid player in baseball history, keep New York away from a dreaded 10-year commitment and set Cano's luxury tax figure at just over $26 million per season.
If New York can convince Cano to sign a five or six year deal for less than $150 million, that should be the ultimate goal, but as the negotiation tenses up over the winter, 7/185 is a fair final offer for a transcendent player caught in the midst of rare circumstances in the Bronx.
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