Well, after all the drama of the past night, that which three months ago seemed inconceivable is now a reality. Robinson Cano is leaving the bright lights of the Big Apple (the first player to ever leave New York to sign a 9-figure contract elsewhere), and moving to the quieter shores of the Pacific Northwest. For the price of just 240 million dollars (just 10 installments of $24 million!) Cano is now a Seattle Mariner. He joins a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001, and has posted just two winning seasons in 10 years. After hearing the news, two questions popped into my mind. First, is there even a snowball’s chance in hell that Cano is anywhere near worth his contract, the 4rd-largest in MLB history? And second, what has gotten into the Mariners?
First, the former. Cano is 31 years old right now, and will be under contract until his age-40 season, earning an average annual value of $24 million a year. As Lewie Pollis of Behind The Boxscore postulates, a win on the free agent market today costs around $7 million, so in order for Cano’s value to be equivalent to his contract, he must produce around 34 wins above replacement; 3.4 WAR per year. Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of how valuable Cano is likely to be, as projected by Fanagraphs’ Dan Syzmborski.
For the first half of the contract, (his age 31-36 seasons), Cano’s performance is projected to actually exceed his contract. And the total WAR Szymborski projects out of Cano over the life of the contract is 35.3, which according to Pollis’ research, would make him worth $247 million! So if anything, Cano is underpaid, right? Well, not exactly. For one thing, I am skeptical about the graceful aging process Szymborski projects for Cano; only four second basemen in major league history have put up more WAR in their age 38-40 seasons as Szymborski projects for him. Still, Cano is as durable as they come — he has missed a total of 14 games in the last 7 years — and with the rate MLB contacts are inflating — average salaries have increased by 35% since 2003 — this contract may not look like as significant an overpay 10 years on as it does even today.
But it’s clear the Mariners are absorbing the back half of the contract for the expected production in the front half. Which brings me to my next question: What are the Mariners doing? A team that went 71-91 last year, making the ultimate win-now move? Upon first glance, this move reeks of desperation by a GM, Jack Zduriencik, who after 5 years on the job, is officially on the hot seat. Even if Cano has a remarkable season (he has been worth an average of 6.3 fWAR every year for the past 4), that only elevates the Mariners to mediocrity.
But of course, the Mariners didn’t make this move in isolation; they seem to have their eyes set on bigger horizons. According to Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, they have a growing interest in Rays’ ace David Price. An acquisition of Price would give the Rays 3 undisputed aces, with Price joining fellow Cy Young award-winner Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who finished 3rd in the balloting this year. They are also said to be targeting former Mariner and OBP-king Shin-Soo Choo, who is likely to command a contract that well exceeds $100 million. The addition of Cano, Price, and Choo, along with the development of the pre-existing young core, would the Mariners instant contenders.
Of course, there is a downside to this flurry of activity. The Mariners have three blue-chip pitching prospects in their system; southpaws James Paxton and Danny Hultzen, and righty Taijuan Walker. Before the season, Baseball America ranked all three as top-60 prospects; Paxton #57, Hultzen #18, and Walker #5. While Hultzen suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out well into the 2014 season, Paxton and Walker were both spectacular, and both shined in brief cups of coffee in the majors. But in a Price deal, the Mariners are guaranteed to lose at least one.
The Mariners would be trading two years of Price for six years of Walker, among other pieces; while a deal would include Walker, it would very likely have to include other pieces, like Brad Miller, a 24-year old shortstop with a career .925 OPS in the minor leagues, or Nick Franklin, who had a .440 OBP this year at AAA. And even if they make all the moves they seem to want to make, they aren’t assured a spot in the playoffs — the “winner” of the offseason rarely is (look at the Blue Jays in 2013, or the Marlins and Angels in 2012). Cano had 6.0 fWAR last year, Price 4.4, and Choo 5.2. Altogether, that’s around 16 wins, which brings the 71-win Mariners up to 87 wins, far from a guaranteed playoff team. The Mariners seem willing to mortgage the future for a chance at a successful couple years.
Since winning 116 games in 2001, the Mariners franchise has languished, drifting quickly into irrelevance. Now, with the Cano signing, they have thrust themselves back into the national spotlight, for better or worse.