Robinson Cano Is Still Good, but His $240M Megadeal Is Becoming an Albatross

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 24, 2015

Seattle Mariners' Robinson Cano bats against the Los Angeles Angels during a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif., Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Chris Carlson/Associated Press

From the sound of things, you'd think Robinson Cano is the worst baseball player, the biggest whiner and the most despicable human being ever.

In reality, he's not that bad of a guy. Or that bad of a player, really.

But if ever there was a time to acknowledge the honeymoon phase of his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners is over, it sure seems like now.

At present, there's plenty of bad noise about Cano out there. Most of it stems from recently fired Mariners coach Andy Van Slyke, who went on a St. Louis radio show last Thursday and portrayed Cano as a blight on the Mariners, Major League Baseball and planet earth.

Mercifully, many have come to Cano's defense. Among those is now-former Mariners third base coach Rich Donnelly, who spoke to John Harper of the New York Daily News. Donnelly said he was "shocked" to hear of Van Slyke's comments and proceeded to do Cano several solids.

Nobody cares about that part, though.

The part of Harper's article that made headlines is his report of a conversation with a longtime friend of Cano's who claimed the former New York Yankee is "not happy in Seattle, especially with a new regime in charge there now, and that he'd love to somehow find his way back to New York."

So, yeah. Hence the appearance of Cano being the worst baseball player ever, the biggest whiner ever and the most despicable human being ever.

One doesn't want to pile on. One would much rather offer a spirited defense of Cano. One would love to argue his redemption is just around the corner.

But sadly, one can't really do that. Knowing where Cano's career is at now, silencing the critics and doubters is going to be an uphill battle now and forever.

John Froschauer/Associated Press

We can give Cano this much credit: He's coming off a 2015 season that wasn't nearly as bad as all the noise would lead you to believe.

Cano played in 156 games and hit .287 with a .779 OPS and 21 home runs. Sure, it was a down year relative to his previous standards—he entered 2015 as a .310 career hitter with an .857 career OPS—but Cano still qualified as an easily above-average hitter.

And he had a pretty good excuse for having a down year.

As Cano told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today in July, he entered 2015 still dealing with the effects of a stomach problem he had first started experiencing in August 2014. He claimed it robbed him of his energy, something Donnelly was quick to back up.

"He was dealing with some physical issues, and a lot of guys would have cashed it in," Donnelly told Harper. "He worked his tail off to get back to where he wanted to be."

As bad as those issues were, the worst appears to be behind Cano. He got his bearings at the plate in June and held on to them for the final four months of the season.

As a result, the three months in which he was most heavily afflicted by his stomach issues now look like an isolated slump rather than the start of a decline:

Robinson Cano Before, During and After Slump
SpanAVGOBPSLUGOPS
Career Through 2013.309.355.504.860
April 2014-August 2014.324.391.465.856
Sept 2014-May 2015.256.308.362.670
June 2015-Oct 2015.303.351.492.843
Baseball-Reference.com

For three months there, Cano was not himself. But on either side of that slump, the Mariners pretty much got exactly the hitter they paid $240 million for two winters ago. His hitting hasn't declined as sharply as his subpar 2015 numbers would indicate.

But lest anyone get too excited, of this there can be no doubt: Cano's bat hasn't disappeared, but it is declining.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Though Cano's numbers on either side of his recent slump look good, it stands out that his slugging doesn't quite measure up to what he was doing as a Yankee. That's not all Safeco Field, either.

No, sir. There are some things Cano's slump doesn't get wrong about him, including that he's become more prone to ground balls and soft contact:

Robinson Cano's Soft Contact
SpanGB%Soft%
Career Through 201347.915.3
April 2014-August 201451.517.0
Sept 2014-June 201554.217.8
June 2015-Oct 201549.917.1
FanGraphs

By far the most encouraging aspect of Cano's recent turnaround was how he hit for power. But because he was continuing to hit ground balls and make soft contact more frequently than his vintage self, it's best to be skeptical about whether he can pick up where he left off.

Elsewhere, one thing that actually got worse was Cano's strikeout habit.

In the final four months of 2015, Cano struck out in 15.9 percent of his plate appearances. That's not so bad relative to the league's 20.4 K percentage, but it was worse than the 13.2 K percentage he had during his slump and the 11.8 K percentage he had in his career before then.

In a related story, Cano's capacity to hit anything thrown his way is slipping. He's not getting more aggressive, but his ability to make contact outside of the strike zone just took a turn for the worse and, overall, his ability to make contact is declining:

Robinson Cano's Plate Discipline
SpanSwing%O-Contact%Contact%
Career Through 201352.273.487.0
April 2014-August 201450.576.986.9
Sept 2014-June 201550.474.484.7
June 2015-Oct 201550.568.182.4
FanGraphs

This, along with Cano's increased tendency for ground balls and soft contact can't be overlooked.

According to the research Bill Petti posted on FanGraphs, the ability to make contact outside of the zone and contact in general are two skills that start declining once a player gets into his late 20s. Cano managed to buck that trend for a couple of years, but apparently not any longer.

At any rate, here's the CliffsNotes version: Though Cano isn't finished as a productive hitter just yet, he neither makes contact nor hits the ball as well as he used to. That's his age at work, and he's no more likely to reverse the effects than he is to reverse his age.

Of course, this wouldn't be as big of a deal if Cano could recoup his waning hitting value on the basepaths or on defense. But...yeah, that's not happening.

Cano was actually a pretty good baserunner in 2014, stealing 10 bases and posting 1.3 baserunning runs above average. But he was a way-below-average runner in the two years prior to 2014, and that was the case again in 2015. At his age of 33, it's 2014 that's clearly the outlier.

May 27, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano (22) at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As for Cano's defense, he's not the worst defensive second baseman ever. But the advanced metrics agree he hasn't been good in the last two seasons, and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports noted even people within the Mariners were wondering what Cano would look like at first base by the end of 2015.

In his heyday, Cano was an elite offensive and defensive second baseman who could hold his own on the basepaths. He's now a liability in the latter two departments and moving away from his prime in the former department. As every player must do eventually, we're looking at Cano entering his twilight.

For the Mariners, this is not a happy thought. They owe Cano $24 million per year for the next eight seasons. FanGraphs' WAR-based value system says he wasn't even worth $20 million in 2015. Knowing about the holes in his game, that may be a permanent reality.

If they aren't already, the Mariners are soon going to find themselves wishing they could move Cano's contract. But in all likelihood, they're going to be forced into working around it instead. Like the Yankees have been with Alex Rodriguez and the Los Angeles Angels now are with Albert Pujols, the Mariners are going to be stuck with Cano.

For now, the Mariners can downplay all the bad noise. All the headlines say they have a talentless malcontent on their hands, but they exaggerate.

They just shouldn't expect this to be the end of the bad noise. It tends to go where the albatrosses go, and that's what Cano is becoming.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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

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