Yankees Dodged $240M Robinson Cano Contract Nightmare

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 19, 2018

DETROIT, MI - MAY 12:  Robinson Cano #22 of the Seattle Mariners looks on while waiting to bat during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on May 12, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Mariners 4-3.  (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Whenever Robinson Cano and the Seattle Mariners visited Yankee Stadium between 2014 and 2017, the New York Yankees could wonder what might have been.

Due to recent events, Seattle's latest visit should have the Yankees counting their blessings.

Cano, who spent his first nine major league seasons manning second base for the Bronx Bombers, will not be with the Mariners for the start of a three-game set at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. In fact, the 35-year-old won't be back in a Mariners uniform until mid-August.

Such are the terms of his 80-game suspension for using a banned substance, which began on May 15.

Exactly what Cano is guilty of requires careful wording. Most headlines suggest that the 35-year-old got caught using a performance-enhancing drug. He actually got nabbed for furosemide, a masking agent that can be used in tandem with PEDs. He's less a "cheater" and more of a "probable cheater."

Even still, the Yankees must be happy that they didn't match or exceed the 10-year, $240 million contract that lured Cano to Seattle in December 2013.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Following a year in which Cano posted an .899 OPS, slammed 27 home runs and finished third in Major League Baseball with 7.8 wins above replacement, the Yankees were intent on re-signing him as a free agent. Even after Cano's talks with Seattle were heating up, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner insisted, "Nobody has given up."

In the end, however, the Yankees didn't match the Mariners' offer. And to hear him say it, they may not have come close.

"I didn't feel respect," Cano said after his contract, which tied Albert Pujols' deal with the Los Angeles Angels for the third-largest free-agent deal in baseball history, was finalized. "I didn't get respect from them."

Cano spent the next four seasons making it look like the Yankees had missed out. Although it wasn't all smooth sailing, he still accounted for 20.4 total WAR between 2014 and 2017. The second basemen the Yankees used in his stead did this:

  • Starlin Castro: 3.3 WAR
  • Brian Roberts: 1.4 WAR
  • Donovan Solano: 0 WAR
  • Stephen Drew and Jose Pirela: Minus-0.4 WAR
  • Gregorio Petit and Tyler Wade: Minus-0.5 WAR

Cano had also been playing well before his suspension this year. Through 39 games, he had an .825 OPS with four homers and 1.7 WAR. Had it not been for a broken hand, all signs pointed toward him continuing to defy age in the fifth year of his megadeal.

Then came his suspension, which changes everything.

Cano's official excuse for using furosemide was that a doctor had prescribed it to him to treat a medical condition. But if that's true, he could have sought a therapeutic use exemption from MLB. His eventual acceptance of a suspension sure looks like an admittance of guilt.

As for what may have spurred Cano toward controversy, perhaps it's significant that he recently admitted he was beginning to feel his age.

"I'm getting older," he told Gabe Lacques of USA Today in February. "You have to focus on things that are really going to help you out down the road, to stay healthy and also give you power."

For getting caught once, Cano lost 80 games' worth of pay ($10.3 million, according to Spotrac) and an opportunity to play in the Mariners' first postseason since 2001. If he gets nabbed again, it'll be 162 games' worth of pay lost, plus possibly another trip to the postseason.

So, it should be safe to assume that Cano will stay clean for the final years of his contract. The corresponding fear is that age will finally catch up to his production. He may quickly go from a $24 million-per-year star to a $24 million-per-year albatross.

If nothing else, the Yankees should be relieved that anxiety over Cano's future belongs to the Mariners and not to them. They've gone from missing out to dodging a potentially huge bullet.

Beyond that, it's hard not to wonder where the Yankees would be right now had they re-signed Cano.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Although it didn't involve re-signing Cano, the Yankees still went on a massive spending spree in the 2013-14 offseason. In retrospect, spending $175 million to sign Masahiro Tanaka and $52 million to extend Brett Gardner were wise choices. On the other hand, they could have gotten more for their money by spending $240 million on Cano than $283 million on Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. 

However, that might have turned out to be a bad thing.

The Yankees are where they are right now—with an MLB-best 46-21 record after coming within a win of the World Series in 2017—because they've gotten away from an obsolete reliance on veterans and embraced a youth movement. Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird are a part of it at the major league level. Meanwhile, Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield are standing by in a deep minor league system.

If life after 2013 had been better with Cano back in the fold, the Yankees might have sacrificed Judge, Severino, Sanchez, Andujar or Bird in trades for veterans. They also might not have been forced into a rebuild in 2016. If so, their trades for Torres, Frazier and Sheffield never would have happened.

Another guy who likely wouldn't be around if the Yankees had brought back Cano? Giancarlo Stanton.

Perhaps the biggest reason the Yankees were able to get Stanton from the Miami Marlins in December 2017 is because they could afford him. They're set to pay $265 million of the $295 million he's owed through 2027. For luxury-tax purposes, he'll be a $22 million-per-year player for them.

Would the Yankees have been able to squeeze Stanton in alongside a $24 million-per-year player like Cano and whatever other veterans they may have accumulated over the years? Probably not.

And as disappointing as Stanton's early returns have been, this much seems true now more than ever: Having him over the next 10 years should be better than having Cano for the next five.

Ultimately, the Yankees wouldn't have many reasons to feel good about re-signing Cano right now. The reputation of the deal would be in tatters, with the value of it possibly set to follow suit. And the Cano-less team they'd be left with likely wouldn't be good enough to pick up the slack.

So, those blessings? They'd better get to counting them.

       

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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