Last week, Robinson Cano’s name found itself in the news, because someone decided to ask a presumably drunk former coach for his opinions while someone else was recording. The news cycle subsequently spent its weekend worshiping at the altar of football, but now we’re back to Cano again, this time for a different reason. John Harper wrote a piece for the Daily News, and within, former coach Rich Donnelly came to Cano’s defense. That’s not what’s grabbed attention, though; what’s grabbed attention would be this:
But even if Cano has had the best intentions as a Mariner, one long-time friend who spoke to him recently says the second baseman 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.
It seems like a powerful sentence. A feeling of regret for a one-time superstar who followed the money away from New York to the other side of the continent? Great for the area media. Great for the area readers. Helps New York feel better about itself, which tends to be the city’s primary interest. And for all I know, this might even be true. There was speculation Cano was “homesick” for New York in June. The Daily News made Cano sound unhappy in March 2014. Granted, Cano might’ve been somewhat unhappy in New York in 2013. He did leave, after all.
The Seattle-area media has never reported having the sense that Cano was unhappy. He happens to be coming off a disappointing year. Not just for himself, but also for the team, which underachieved while Cano’s old Yankees squeaked into the playoffs (for a day). My guess is this is nothing. It’s something to talk about on a Monday morning when there’s nothing else going on. Of course Cano would’ve preferred a stronger 2015, individually and as a group. If he was unhappy in 2014, it didn’t stop him from having a terrific year. If he was unhappy in the middle of 2015, it didn’t stop him from having a terrific second half.
I’m actually more interested in something else from the same article. Forget what one person says about Cano’s emotional state; it’s indirect, and uncorroborated, and not as important as his performance. More to the point of his performance: consider the following excerpt.
“He’s, what, 33 now, and he’s not an elite defender at second base anymore,” a major league executive said. “I think the Yankees would see him as being worth about five years and $80 million.”
This — this has some real substance. A few years ago, Robinson Cano signed with the Mariners for 10 years and $240 million. He has eight years and $192 million left. What is he actually worth? As in, what might Cano get on the market, were he a free agent today? It’s basically a hypothetical — Cano isn’t a free agent, nor will the Mariners trade him — but that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting case. That anonymous executive presents his case above, and even if it’s not an exact calculation, he didn’t pull those numbers completely out of his ass. Let’s work around the estimate. Five years, $80 million, if Cano were available.
It’s pretty easy to see what makes this particularly complicated. Free agency is never easy to figure out when you’re talking about an older player, but Cano just saw his WAR drop by three wins. It’s conspicuous on his player page, but nothing about this is smooth. In the first half of last season, Cano was arguably below replacement-level. In the second half, he hit like himself in his prime. By WAR, first-half Cano was in the bottom 10% of qualified position players. Second-half Cano was in the top 20%. He posted a wRC+ a little behind Jose Bautista, and a little ahead of Yoenis Cespedes.
Cano wasn’t the only player with a much bigger second half. Comparing halves, post-break Cano had the higher wRC+ by 74 points. Post-break Shin-Soo Choo was higher by 92 points. Post-break David Ortiz was higher by 86 points. Cano’s career-best, full-season wRC+ is 149 — he hit that well with Seattle over the most recent few months, so it’s difficult to figure what’s happening. We know he’s getting older, and therefore worse, but it seems like next year should be better than last year. He was said to play through illness and injuries. Making it all ever stranger, he appeared to hit better when he was hurt.
So, good luck. Cano’s projection has error bars. Everyone’s does, but Cano’s might be bigger than most. For simplicity, let’s follow the midpoint. Steamer puts 2016 Cano at 3.5 WAR. For the sake of reference, Steamer put 2015 Cano at 5.0 WAR, before the season started. So his decline has been factored in. Cano’s coming up on his age-33 year. No matter how gracefully you expect him to age, aging curves tend to get steeper as you approach the big 4-0.
This can be fairly straightforward. All it takes are a few market assumptions. We’ll give Cano a standard aging curve. And now to work with some math: let’s say a win will cost $8 million on the free-agent market. And let’s assume a 5% rate of future inflation. These are guesses. Everything is a guess! The idea is for the guesses to be realistic enough.
This version of Cano would be expected to fetch just north of $100 million over five years. Or, about $104 million, over six years. Now that that’s set, we can play around. What if, say, you’re more down on Cano, and you figure he’s due for a 3.0-win season instead? Then he’d drop to five years and just short of $80 million. Alternatively, if you buy Cano’s second half, and figure he’ll be worth something more like 4 WAR, then you’re looking at five years and $123 million.
Go back to the 3.5-WAR estimate. This gave five years and $101 million. Changing the rate of inflation by a percentage point or two changes the total contract value by just a few million. So, not a big deal. If, instead of $8 million, a win is going to cost $8.5 million, then you get five years and $107 million. Unsurprisingly, the take-home message should be that the most important thing is placing Cano’s future value. The market conditions aren’t as big a collection of factors as Cano’s skill. Put him at 3.75 WAR over five years and you have a $112-million valuation. Remember, again, he’s due $192 million over eight years.
There’s even a much simpler way to approach this. Cano is newly 33, and he projects for 3.5 WAR. Alex Gordon will be 32, and he also projects for 3.5 WAR. Gordon is a free agent, and while he’s an outfielder instead of an infielder, that’s not what’s really important. Whatever you expect Gordon to sign for should be in the neighborhood of what you’d expect Cano to sign for. For the sake of the hypothetical, let’s assume Cano was also granted a qualifying offer. So the only huge difference is Cano’s extra year of age. The performances are similar, even if Gordon is more of a defensive-minded type.
The fans projected Gordon right around five years and $90 million. The fans tend to come in a little low, so let’s instead put Gordon at five years and $100 – 110 million. There’s your estimate. Cano would be around the same place. Cano will have three more actual guaranteed years, but those are unlikely to produce much of any value.
Ben Zobrist might function as another pseudo-comp, but he’s older than Cano, and more versatile. The fans put Zobrist at three years and $42 million, but Dave figures he’ll get another year, and a higher salary. Zobrist would still be close enough. That’s Cano’s neighborhood.
And that’s why the Mariners are already looking at an albatross. They can afford it, sure. And maybe it all still works out, if Cano really bounces back, or if he ages gracefully, or if the market takes off. It doesn’t have to be an eight-year nightmare. But in July, Dave ranked Cano as having the least trade value in the game. While Cano played better over the remaining months, the math didn’t change much — Dave was working with a 2016 estimate of 3.6 WAR. So here we are, where the Mariners have a good player, a player who should have a better 2016, but a player who’s guaranteed way too much money. The Mariners have Cano signed like he’s Jason Heyward. He’s more like Alex Gordon. Alex Gordon’s pretty good, for now.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.