Can Not

December 6, 2013

 

You donít see this every day: one deal effectively sinks two franchises. Well, thatís not exactly true. The Yankees did some of the dirty work before today.

 

I never expected Robinson Cano to sign with Seattle. Last year he was basically the entire Yankee offense. He and Brett Gardner were the only position players who produced more than 1.6 runs above replacement (WAR). So to see the Yankees essentially trade him for Jacoby Ellsbury in the free agent market when they already had a center fielder (Gardner) and did not have a ready replacement at second base is a bit of a puzzler. They needed Cano more than any other free agent available, and arguably needed him more than any other franchise.

 

But this situation does raise some interesting questions. For example, the Yankees presumably lost out on Cano because they are dead set on staying under the $189 million salary cap threshold so they donít have to pay excessive luxury taxes. And thatís fine. Itís not the way the Yankees have done business historically speaking, but itís an interesting direction. But it is also a signal to every other team what they need to do to get every decent free agent that is still available.

 

The Yankees wouldnít go above $175 million for Cano, a homegrown star, but they just signed Ellsbury from the rival Red Sox for $153 million. That deal was the third highest ever for an outfielder, made all the more interesting for a player without consistent over-the-wall power. So the question they now face is whether or not to overpay for Shin Soo-Shoo or Nelson Cruz. Choo would benefit from the dimensions of Yankee Stadium but has struggled against left-handed pitching. Cruz, as a right-handed pull hitter, would suffer from the move from Texas to Yankee Stadium. Carlos Beltran is 36-years old and is also available but is reportedly looking for a three-year deal. If you include ARod, the Yankees already have four everyday starters on the wrong side of 35 years old (Jeter, Soriano, Suziki, Rodriguez) with another (Teixeira) playing like it. Do they really want to add another one? And even if they wanted to sign any one of those three, the Tigers have money to spend, as do the Red Sox, Rangers and Mariners. The Royals and possibly the Orioles are rumored to be searching for ways to spend money as well so itís not a foregone conclusion that the Yankees can get any of those players if they want them.

 

(Editorís note: Later in the day that the Mariners signed Cano, Carlos Beltran reportedly signed a three-year deal with the Yankees worth $45 million. Depending on how arbitration plays out for the seven players who are eligible, the Yankees current 2014 commitment as their roster is currently constituted will be between $180-185 million.)

 

More interestingly, most of the remaining impact free agents play either outfield, first base or DH, positions in which the Yankees are already pretty full. So if the Yanks decide they need to upgrade their defense at second base, which frankly is a necessity given that their middle infield now has Kelly Johnson and Derek Jeter, two of the worst fielders at their positions in baseball, how do they go about it? This exposes the Yankeesí real problem: their farm system stinks. So not only do they not have cheap help on the way but they donít really have the capability to trade for anyone good. Sure, they can trade Gary Sanchez now that theyíve signed Brian McCann, but to whom? The Angels have a second baseman, Howie Kendrick, they could part with but they already have Hank Conger behind the plate for the next few years. Gary Sanchez doesnít get them closer to where they want to go. There are other second basemen available but they come with either high price tags in terms of salary or in return talent. And the Yankees canít afford either.

 

So regardless of what the Yankees do to augment their rotation, their line-up will be Jacoby Ellsbury, Derek Jeter, Brian McCannÖ Alfonso Soriano? Mark Teixeira? Kelly Johnson? Itís possible albeit extremely unlikely that Alex Rodriguez will play third due to his impending suspension and legal battles, but if not, then the batting order continues with Eduardo Nunez, Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner. Correct me if Iím wrong but that is potentially a terrible line-up. For an organization that has built its legacy on hitting prowess, that might be one of the weakest line-ups to ever wear pinstripes.

 

From the Seattle point of view, Cano is a great add for the near future even though heíll probably suffer some from the change in home venue, probably about a 10% decrease in production. But what next? They were a bad team with two good starting pitchers last year and adding one impact bat isnít enough to change the climate. Ironically enough, Cano moves probably the Marinersí best young hitting talent, Nick Franklin, to either another position or out of town. The rest of the line-up is comprised of young, interesting but flawed talents: Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, Jesus Montero. Thereís not really a bat that is guaranteed 3+ win production. So even with this huge expenditure, theyíll need to add at least one more impact bat and probably a couple more rotation arms and some depth in the bullpen. Essentially they have to acquire 3-5 more really good players before they are serious contenders with the Aís and Rangers.

 

Granted, their core is young so they have a fairly large window of opportunity but how Cano quickly ages is pivotal to the success of this move. Cano is often viewed as being on a Hall of Fame path so comparing him to recent second baseman either already enshrined or deserving of the honor is revealing. Cano will be 31 this season. Joe Morgan, Bobby Grich, Rod Carew, Lou Whitaker, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Ryne Sandberg all started showing significant effects of aging by age 34. Some of those guys had an above average year later into their mid-to-late 30s but the Mariners are paying for star level production for the next 10 years. Only Jeff Kent, who is borderline Hall material, maintained his production into his late 30s. Unless a couple of their young players emerge as All Stars to make up for the difference, this contract will become a lodestone sooner than later.

 

Also notable is that unlike previous 10-year contracts that have been handed out, much of Canoís value in his defense. Heís nowhere near the same class of offensive force that Albert Pujols or ARod were when they got their huge contracts. So when he loses a step in range as he ages, his value will drop precipitously. He could go from a 6- or 7-win player to a 2-win player in the span of a couple years.

 

And even if the Mariners hit the trifecta this winter and land an impact free agent like Shin-Soo Choo, and then trade for David Price to upgrade their rotation, would or even should they be considered favorites to win their division? Iím not convinced that would be enough to get them there. So all this hoopla, assuming everything goes to plan, just to wind up as the third best team in the division? For reference, they finished fourth last year and the only reason they finished that high is that the historically bad Astros were in the basement.

 

All that points toward one conclusion: Cano signing with Seattle instead of New York might just be the undoing for both teams for the next decade.††††