Making a Robinson Cano Trade Work

As we get closer to deals for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, the time has come for warnings about mega-deals gone bad. You know about Albert Pujols, Chris Davis, Miguel Cabrera, and Jacoby Ellsbury as prime examples of why guaranteeing big money long-term to players on the wrong side of 30 is a bad idea. Robinson Cano’s current contract is not one of those examples. There were alarm bells when Cano signed his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Mariners five years ago, but he has more than held up his end of the contract by averaging more than four wins per season. If Cano hits his projections next year and continues a normal age-related decline, he could easily live up to the $240 million contract he signed.

Over the past five seasons, the Mariners have paid Cano just over $108 million and Cano, in turn, has delivered 20.7 WAR. According to our values at the bottom of Cano’s player page, his play has been worth around $160 million. He’s currently projected by Steamer for three wins next season. With standard aging curves, here is what Cano’s production and value are expected to be over the next five years.

Robinson Cano’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $81.1 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Contract
2019 36 3.0 $9.0 M $27.0 M
2020 37 2.5 $9.5 M $23.6 M
2021 38 1.8 $9.9 M $17.4 M
2022 39 1.0 $10.4 M $10.4 M
2023 40 0.3 $10.9 M $2.7 M
Totals 8.5 $81.1 M

Assumptions

Value: $9M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30), -0.5 WAR/yr (31-37), -0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

Add what he’s done and what he’s expected to do, and Cano ends up a bit ahead of the money the Mariners are set to pay him over the life of the contract. Looking at Cano’s contract in dollars per WAR is one way to evaluate his performance. Another way might be to compare Cano’s outcome to another. Instead of paying Cano $240 million (now $231 million due to last year’s suspension) over 10 years, a team could have opted to spread that money around on other players, potentially reducing their risk and getting more immediate impact. In fact, that’s exactly what the Yankees decided to do. The club opted not to budge past their seven-year, $175 million offer to Cano and then filled three holes by signing Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal, Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract, and Carlos Beltran to a three-year deal worth $15 million annually.

This is how those three players have fared for the Yankees compared to what Cano has done for the Mariners.

Robinson Cano v. Ellsbury, McCann, and Beltran
Cano Cost Cano WAR Beltran / McCann / Ellsbury Cost Beltran / McCann / Ellsbury WAR
2014 $24 M 5.6 $68.8 M 5.3
2015 $24 M 2.8 $68.8 M 5.7
2016 $24 M 6.2 $65.0 M 5.4
2017 $24 M 3.2 $29.0 M 1.6
2018 $12.3 M 2.9 $27.4 M 0
TOTAL $108.3 M 20.7 $259 M 18.0
Yankees dollar figure represents portion of competitive balance tax money beyond what Cano would have cost the club.

This is just one example, and Ellsbury’s downturn couldn’t have been foreseen at this level, but after the Yankees pursued the diversification route, they won the same amount of playoff games as the Mariners over the following three seasons. When they did make it to the ALCS in 2017, McCann and Beltran were both gone from the roster and Ellsbury received just 12 PA in 13 games; he did not get a hit. Even if we didn’t add any money for the competitive balance tax, the Yankees spent way more money on their trio than they would have spent on Cano and have gotten far less production. Even with the $120 million Cano is still owed (and the $43 million Ellsbury is still owed), the Yankees would have been much better off just giving Cano the money.

The relevant question isn’t what should have been done five years ago (give Cano the money) or whether the Yankees would have been better off with Cano (they would have). Our question concerns Robinson Cano’s trade value today. The Mariners already benefited from the surplus of Cano’s performance the last five years by paying him below market value for All-Star performance. That surplus is set to even out over the next five years, and right now that means Cano’s deal is under water. In order for Seattle to move Cano, they are going to have to pay down some of the remaining contract or take on a significant contract of a player who is performing worse than Cano is.

If we look at the chart showing Cano’s expected performance going forward, we see roughly $80 million in value, with Cano coming close to producing at the level of his contract for three seasons before dropping off for the final two years. That was the scenario in which the swap of Ellsbury (and the $47 million he’s owed) for Cano, which was reportedly discussed in the early part of the offseason per Ken Rosenthal, made sense. Both contracts are roughly $40 million under water, though the Yankees wanted the Mariners to pay more money and Seattle reasonably declined.

It is within a similar value framework that the Mets are aggressively trying to acquire Cano, per Andy Martino. The reported potential framework of a deal involving Cano and $50 million going to the Mets comes close value-wise. The Mets are said to be trying to include Jay Bruce or receive Edwin Diaz or Mitch Haniger. There is a chance Cano could be packaged with Diaz or Haniger for some prospect return, but absent that, those two – particularly Haniger – don’t make sense to include as the Mariners try to rebuild; using those pieces to acquire talent for the Mariners next run at contention would seem to be a far better option than simply having to eat less money. As for Bruce and the $29 million owed to him over the next two seasons, that would likely need to come out of the money the Mariners are paying. Cano plus $30 million for Bruce is a deal that could make sense for both clubs. If the Mets were to insist on Diaz (the more likely supplemental piece to move) in the trade, New York would need to add prospects to the deal, essentially combining two separate trades into one. Regardless, the Mets would have to figure out what do with Jeff McNeil, with Peter Alonso presumably taking over at first base, Todd Frazier at third, and Cano likely sticking at second for now.

The bigger issue than agreeing on a value for Cano is the flooded market for second basemen. In a projections-only vacuum, where Cano actually put up the five-win season he would’ve without the PED suspension, he might be worth something like four or five years and $70-80 million. In the current world, Cano just missed half of last season and is part of a second base market that includes free agents DJ Lemahieu, Brian Dozier, Jed Lowrie, Daniel Murphy, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Ian Kinsler. All are projected to be worth between 1.8 WAR and 2.5 WAR, less than Cano, but not too far off his mark, and are likely to come in at less than half the cost of Cano, even after Seattle sends money. If a team is looking for a second baseman, the free agents are the better values. At first base, Cano would still be a contributor and above-average player, but his value dips as he moves down the defensive spectrum.

If Seattle isn’t planning on contending in the next couple seasons and they can spring a deal eating around $50 million or so, they should take advantage. But there will be a price point at which a deal makes less sense as Seattle isn’t a franchise with financial difficulties, meaning the money the team could free up doesn’t actually provide much additional flexibility. There might not be a deal to be made for Cano right now, and what deals there are could be complicated by Cano’s no-trade clause, which would limit potential suitors. Given those factors, any trade that does take place might look like a lose-lose, where both sides seem to have given up too much, with Seattle sending too much money and the team acquiring Cano spending more than they should have given the other available alternatives.

We hoped you liked reading Making a Robinson Cano Trade Work by Craig Edwards!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

newest oldest most voted
Kevbot034
Member
Kevbot034

Diaz seems like such a perfect trade candidate, would hate to see him as a throwaway piece offloading Cano.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I think if a team like the Braves or Padres or Reds or Astros are willing to spend their prospect capital on a closer, they should definitely deal. I don’t think any of those teams will do so (especially Padres or Reds) but the premium paid to elite closers is real and it’s the best way they could restart a contention window in a few years.

hecarriedhisbat
Member
Member
hecarriedhisbat

Nice call on the Reds as a candidate to land (overpay) for Diaz.

The team signs Iglesias to a new deal, apparently to pacify him for lost saves/future market value, as Iglesias starts a “Hader” role.

Add in…. a blustery lead owner who already proclaimed a 67-win team will “acquire pitching” and “have a record team payroll.” (Wise moves or not.)

Senzel? Greene? Trammell? There are guys in the Reds system that would fit Dipoto’s re-tool/re-start…whatever the hip Pacific Northwest term is for the M’s plans.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

The thing about the Reds is that their front office/ownership has a really hard time getting to a “yes” in terms of deals. It’s been that way for a while, and I think that’s part of the reason why the Cozart trade to the Mariners completely fell apart a couple of years ago (they literally ran out of time because the Reds took too long on other deals).

It doesn’t make any sense for them to do it, and it’s not clear they are organized enough to pull off big trades like this, so I don’t think it’s happening. But if they wanted to, the Reds could offer a ton of value.