Robinson Cano to the Mariners

December 10, 2013
 
The Yankees decision to not offer Robinson Cano a ten-year contract at an annual rate of $24 million dollars is, on the surface, a completely reasonable decision. Robinson Cano is approach his Age-31 season: though he has been perhaps the healthiest and most reliable player in baseball over the last four seasons, his production will absolutely decline over the last years of his contract. He will not be an MVP-level player at forty-one. He likely will not be an MVP-caliber player at thirty-eight.
 
The Mariners decided to sign Cano to a long-term contract because he is an MVP-caliber player now, and has been for each of the last four seasons. That he has been the forgotten man in the two years of the Trout/Cabrera debate is irrelevant: Cano is an excellent baseball player; a likely Hall-of-Famer and a player who could rate in the top-ten, all-time, at his position.
 
The Yankees decision not to overpay for those late years is, viewed in isolation, a perfectly justifiably decision. It is certainly a strange decision: Cano signing with Seattle marks the first time a Great Yankee Hitter has left the team in the prime of his career. The Yankees, more than any other franchise, tend to keep their homegrown greats. ‘Tend’ is too soft: they have always kept those players. Until Cano.
 
Unfortunately, the Yankees decision to let Cano walk did not occur in isolation: it occurred amidst a flurry of deals that have made this off-season the most interesting one in recent memory. Their primary moves were:
 
-Signing Brian McCann (Age 30) to a 5 year/$85 million dollar contract.
-Signing Jacoby Ellsbury (Age 30) to a 7 year/$153 million dollar contract.
-Signing Carlos Beltran (Age 37) to a 3 year/$45 million dollar contract.
 
For the duration of this article, let’s leave Brian McCann out of the conversation. The Yankees acquired McCann because they had no production from their catchers in 2013, and Brian McCann, his habit of playing morality cop aside, is a very talented baseball player, and worth the investment the Yankees made.
 
Which leaves us Ellsbury and Beltran. The Yankees are paying this:
 
Player
Year
Age
Salary
Ellsbury
2014
30
$21.85
Ellsbury
2015
31
$21.85
Ellsbury
2016
32
$21.85
Ellsbury
2017
33
$21.85
Ellsbury
2018
34
$21.85
Ellsbury
2019
35
$21.85
Ellsbury
2020
36
$21.85
Beltran
2014
37
$15
Beltran
2015
38
$15
Beltran
2016
39
$15
Total
2014-2020
30-39
$198
 
As it turns out, Ellsbury and Beltran’s ages work out perfectly: the Yankees are paying for Ellsbury his Age-30 to Age-36 seasons, and they’re paying Beltran for his Age-37 through Age-39 seasons. They are paying a shade under $200 million for ten years of Ellsbury and Beltran.
 
The Seattle Mariners are paying Robinson Cano this:
 
Player
Year
Age
Salary
Cano
2014
31
$24
Cano
2015
32
$24
Cano
2016
33
$24
Cano
2017
34
$24
Cano
2018
35
$24
Cano
2019
36
$24
Cano
2020
37
$24
Cano
2021
38
$24
Cano
2022
39
$24
Cano
2023
40
$24
Total
2014-2023
31-40
$240

They are paying a bit more than $40 million dollars extra, for ten years of Robinson Cano.
 
Except: that isn’t exactly right. The Yankees will be paying their money between 2014 and 2020…the Mariners are spreading out their payments through 2023. Just crunching the numbers:
 
Year
Yankees
Mariners
2014
$36.85
$24
2015
$36.85
$24
2016
$36.85
$24
2017
$21.85
$24
2018
$21.85
$24
2019
$21.85
$24
2020
$21.85
$24
2021
$0
$24
2022
$0
$24
2023
$0
$24
Total
$198
$240
 
The Yankees payments are front-loaded: they are paying most of their dough over the next three years, and all of it over the next seven years. The Mariners have it spread out over longer.
 
This brings the balance a tad closer: a million dollars is more valuable in 2014 than it will be in 2023. The true difference between what the Yankees are paying for Beltran/Ellsbury and what the Mariners are paying for Cano is lessthan the forty million dollars that shows. The Mariners are still paying more, but they aren’t paying that much more.
 
Which leads us to projecting the production of these two players. The always-excellent Dave Cameron, in an article about Cano posted over at Fangraphs used a standard aging curve of a half win decline ever year through a player’s Age-33 season, and then a 0.7 win decline for each year after that.
 
Jacoby Ellsbury posted an fWAR of 5.8. Robinson Cano posted an fWAR of 6.0. Beltran posted an fWAR of 2.0.Using a set rate of anticipated decline, we have this:
 
Player
Year
Age
fWAR
Player
Year
Age
fWAR
Ellsbury
2014
30
5.3
Cano
2014
31
5.5
Ellsbury
2015
31
4.8
Cano
2015
32
5.0
Ellsbury
2016
32
4.3
Cano
2016
33
4.5
Ellsbury
2017
33
3.8
Cano
2017
34
3.8
Ellsbury
2018
34
3.1
Cano
2018
35
3.1
Ellsbury
2019
35
2.4
Cano
2019
36
2.4
Ellsbury
2020
36
1.7
Cano
2020
37
1.7
Beltran
2014
37
1.3
Cano
2021
38
1.0
Beltran
2015
38
0.6
Cano
2022
39
0.3
Beltran
2016
39
-0.1
Cano
2023
40
-0.4
Total
2014-2020
30-39
27.2
Total
2014-2023
31-40
26.9
 
This is a draw, essentially. I used the 2013 numbers as a starting point: this probably biases the results a little bit towards Ellsbury, who had a comparable year to Cano, at least by fWAR. If we had applied these numbers from 2012 (Cano had a 7.7 fWAR, Ellsbury a 1.4 fWAR), the estimates would swing in Cano’s favor.  
 
These are long-term projections, and they shouldn't be granted too much predictive power. The chief point I want to make is that we’re talking about similar expected values: Robinson Cano from Age-31 to 40 is likely to be as valuable as the combination of Ellsbury and Beltran. The Yankees didn’t save a lot of money in choosing to sign Beltran and Ellsbury over Cano, and they didn’t get a significant increase in anticipated production. At best, they’re treading water.
 
Except there is one further contextual element to consider: the likely scenario that Brett Gardner will be traded for starting pitching. The Yankees currently have a surplus of outfielders: in addition to Ellsbury and Beltran, they have Brett Gardner, Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, and Ichiro Suzuki. Add that the presence of McCann (who probably won’t catch every day), A-Rod (who will need spells at DH if his suspension is lightened) and Teixeira, and the Yankees have a lot of bats for a few spots. Even if they simply release Vernon Wells, their team is crowded with overpaid hitters. Brett Gardner is the only player on that list whose contract and age is attractive enough to other teams to get something of value back to the Yankees. .
 
One of the reasons I was surprised the Yankees signed Ellsbury is that they already had, in Brett Gardner, a player very much like Jacoby Ellsbury. Brett Gardner, forever underrated, is about 85% the player that Jacoby Ellsbury is, for 15% of Ellsbury’s salary.
 
Even if the Yankees don’t trade Gardner, they will play him less in 2014. It is worth noting that Brett Gardner was the second most-valuable player on the Yankees last year:
 
Player
Win Shares
rWAR
Robinson Cano
35
7.6
Brett Gardner
22
4.2
Hiroki Kuroda
16
4.1
Mariano Rivera
16
2.5
 
The Yankees have lost their best player from 2013. To make up for that loss, they have acquired talent that will either a) reduce the playing time of their second-best player, or b) force them to trade that second player to fill roster spots they could not fill on the free agent marketplace.
 
None of this matters, of course, if the Yankees are a better team going forward than they were at the close of 2013. But I don’t know that they are a better team. They have switched out the following positions (using 2013 Win Shares):  
 
Pos
Player
Win Shares
Player
Win Shares
CF
Ellsbury
22
Gardner
22
RF
Beltran
22
Granderson
4
2B
Johnson
12
Cano
35
 
Let’s consider the team at each position: is it better to sign Jacoby Ellsbury to a 7/$153 contract, or is it better to work out an extension with Brett Gardner, a player who is almost the same player as Ellsbury, but still under team control and not perceived as an elite player.
 
With deference to Ellsbury’s superior talent, I think the wise decision would’ve been to try and extend Gardner, who would demand far fewer years, and far fewer dollars than Ellsbury. Gardner, for a long time, has been the forgotten man on a team of big-name players: an All-Star level player who has never made an All-Star team.
 
How about Carlos Beltran or Curtis Granderson?  Both players are making the same annual salary ($15 million), but Granderson is getting an extra year from the Mets. Which contract would you rather have?
 
Carlos Beltran is one of my five favorite players in baseball, so my own bias is to take the switch-hitter. But the objective answer is that Curtis Granderson will likely be a better value over the duration of his contract than Beltran. Granderson is approaching his Age-33 season, and though he missed most of 2013 with fluke hit-by-pitch injuries, he was productive in the two seasons before, hitting 40+ homers and playing at least 156 games each year. Beltran is going to be thirty-seven in 2014…even with his superior baseball talent, those four years he has on Granderson makes this at least neutral.
 
Which brings us to Kelly Johnson and Robinson Cano. Whatever player you think Robinson Cano will be in 2020, or 2022, there’s no doubt that he is a much better  player than anyone the Yankees can get to play second base, at least in the next few years. It’s a massive loss.
 
The Yankees, in spending money on McCann, dealt directly with an obvious problem on their team: they had no production at catcher, so they went out and acquired the best available catcher.
 
The Yankees, in acquiring Ellsbury, spent money to solve a problem that they didn’t have: in Gardner, they had a centerfielder that was almost as good as Ellsbury, and much cheaper. In signing Ellsbury, the Yankees wound up created a big problem on their roster: whereas they had previously enjoyed more production from the second base position than any other team in baseball, they now have Kelly Johnson at second.
 
In essence, they exchanged a strength they absolutely cannot replace, for a strength that they already had.
 
The Yankees offseason plan, at least so far, has been to acquire as many shiny new toys as they could. Maybe this is a good public relations move - maybe the signings of Ellsbury and Beltran and McCann will be attractive to season-ticket holders - but I don’t think the team is significantly improved.
 
Signing McCann was a good decision.
 
But swapping out Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and (in all likelihood) Brett Gardner in exchange for Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Kelly Johnson does not make the Yankees a better team. It makes them worse.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

ventboys
I don't see Pujols leaving St. Louis and Cano leaving New York as the same thing.

Pujols left a team loaded to the gills with talent, a team that replaced most of his ability with another slightly over the hill slugger who played to the right of him on the defensive spectrum. He was already demonstrably into his decline phase, with no defensive ground to lose as a firstbaseman. He'd had foot problems already, and his k/bb data was deteriorating at an alarming pace. His new team was a large market team that has no trouble attracting free agents.

Cano is, based on his recent record, still in his prime. As a second baseman he has some room to move defensively, and as a hitter he can move all the way to the left and still be productive. His old team could afford to play him 24 mil, or 240 mil, and still make a profit; they don't have anyone to replace him, and the guy they signed to replace him in the middle of the order is a catcher who can't throw. The team that signed him struggles mightily to sign marquee free agents, and they have never won a championship.

Bob, you Yankee lover/apologist, the only thing the Yankees will be on the fringe of is middle age. I would bet my own money that they finish last in the East in 2014. Mark it down.
7:54 PM Dec 12th
 
DaveFleming
I think what smbakeresq means is that if you're going to shell out money for free agents, it's better to invest in one elite player, than gamble on two goodish players.

$24 is the going rate for an elite player (Cano). $20-22 seems to be the going rate for an All-Star (Ellsbury, Choo). $15 will get you an older guy (Beltran) or a guy coming off an injury-plagued year (Granderson). $10-14 gets you a pitcher with a good track record (Nolasco) or an older guy coming off an improbable season (Colon).

Is it better to pay for Cano, or Beltran+Colon, or Nolasco+Stephen Drew?

The post-Pujols Cardinals certainly are a point in your favor: they signed Furcal and Beltran to replace Pujols, and landed a bit more production (31 Win Shares to 25) for equivalent money, and fewer years.


1:28 PM Dec 12th
 
steve161
" that's why in general one $24M player is better than two $12M players"

I'm not so sure. Consider the post-Pujols Cardinals.
6:21 PM Dec 11th
 
smbakeresq
The baseball aspects might even out, although I believe that Cano will be a much better value going forward due to his age and lack of injury history. SEA with Cano plus another player will be greater than Ellsbury and Beltran, that's why in general one $24M player is better than two $12M players.

From SEA viewpoint though, you get the player AND the JayZ marketing arm. That's a great deal. Scott Boras never marketed anything but himself, JayZ and Cano will be selling SEA all over the league to players and everywhere to fans. Expect a new uniform and hat combo soon, and SEA jerseys everywhere.
2:09 PM Dec 11th
 
DaveFleming
On McCann as Robocop...

My bigger beef was him getting in the face of Jose Fernandez, when the rookie launched a monster bomb in his last start.

Fernandez....Fernandez is pretty much rivaling Mike Trout as my favorite player in baseball: he plays the game with such rare joy, such enthusiasm. I know the Marlins have talked about reigning him in....I pray that they don't.

I remember one of his starts against the Braves, in which Freddie Freeman was hitting everything he threw hard. Freeman hit a long fly ball that just when foul, and then he crushed a double to dead-center that just missed going out. Fernandez threw his hands up in the air and laughed about it: he knew he had been beaten, but the battle had been fun.

One of the best things I read about on this was posted on the Sons of Sam Horn site....I wish I had written it down verbatim, because it was perfectly stated. What is boils down to is this: sportsmanship is about how you choose behave, win or lose. It has nothing to do with anyone else...it's about how you, as an individual, respond to any situation.

Why I think McCann demonstrated unsportsmanlike conduct in confronting Gomez and Fernandez is that he was trying to control the reactions of others. That's not his business.....if you lose- if your team gives up a homer or blows the ALDS - you don't get to whine about how the winners have reacted to winning. That's not being a good sport, or enforcing some code...that's being a petulant little shit.

You win: do what you want. That's your prerogative. Circle the bases at warp speed or admire your shot. That's what the winner gets: the right to celebrate their victories as they want to, not as the loser want them to.

If you lose, you tip your hat and stand aside, and you try your best to get 'em next time. That's it...that's all you get to do.

1:11 PM Dec 11th
 
DaveFleming
To answer questions as best I can:

I agree with casejud: this is a good expenditure of resources by the Mariners....remember that the Mariners offered a qualifying offer to Kendrys Morales, and were willing to pay his $14 million. I'd rather pay the extra dough for Cano.

Mikeclaw asked why I assumed the Yankees would play Gardner less in 2014. He's the obvious guy to see his playing time reduced. Ellsbury's going to the leadoff spot...assuming that the Yankees continue hitting Jeter second, that bumps Gardner to, what, the 7th or 8th spot in the lineup. So even if he plays 162 games, he'll have fewer at-bats. Beltran is a switch-hitter, so while he'll get a few games at DH, there's not an obvious situation where they can give some of Beltran's at-bats to Wells, Ichiro, and Soriano. Gardner's the easiest guy to bench.

But....I think the Yankees will end up trading him for a starter. Maybe...maybe the Yankees get Tanaka and keep Gardner, but I think someone else lands Tanaka (if he's posted) and the Yankees scramble. I'd be surprised to see Gardner in pinstripes on Opening Day.

Kaiser mentions the Ellsbury-injury thing...I admit that these projections are very generous to Ellsbury, as they're using Ellsbury's second best season ever as a starting point. The projections shouldn't be given too much salt (just as the history of 2B who have collapsed at 32 doesn't prove that Cano will fall apart). They're useful in that they are 1) as optimistic to the Yankees as possible, and 2) still suggestive that the Yankees are merely treading water this offseason.
12:44 PM Dec 11th
 
David Kowalski
The win share total for Cano is correct and underscores his value. It is also noted that Cano has been rock solid for the last four years with win shares of 35 (2013), 34 (2012), 30 (2011) and 34 (2010).
That's an average of 33 win shares as his norm.

IIRC Cano was listed as the MVP on a playoff team in the AL in 2012 and he had a slightly better year in 2013.
12:18 PM Dec 11th
 
ksclacktc
Also, using rWAR for 2011-13, the following(WAR,GP): Cano, Gardner, Granderson (39.3,1177): Johnson, Ellsbury, Beltran (30.5,1211). If you prorate for the small games difference it is a loss of 10 wins over 3 years, or 3.5 per year!
9:51 AM Dec 11th
 
ksclacktc
Finally, someone gives an analysis with real evidence on the Cano/Yankees deal!!
9:36 AM Dec 11th
 
rgregory1956

I don't get all the doom and gloom for the Yankees. You guys seem to think all the Yankee starters are going to play between 30 and 50 games. I took the 8 projected starters (leaving out third base), prorated their least productive full season from the past 4 seasons to 125 games, and filled in the remaining plate appearances with a slash line of .234/.292/.359. Using the simple Runs Created formula, it's works out to them scoring about 50 more runs than they did in 2013. Will Ellsbury, Gardner, Beltran, Teixeira, Jeter, Kelly Johnson and Soriano all play 125 games? Probably not (maybe even "definitely" not), but the 8 of them playing a total of 1000 games is closer to what is going to happen than them all playing less than 100 games. And a more stable lineup means a more stable defense, which means (likely) better pitching. I really don't foresee Sabathia's ERA approaching 5.00 again in 2014.

Just to be clear: I don't see the Yankees winning 90+ games, but I do see them over .500. They'll be on the fringe of the Wild Card race.


9:19 AM Dec 11th
 
KaiserD2
I think this is a very interesting article, with which I have only one quibble. The projections for Ellsbury seem to assume that he is going to remain healthy. Surely this is an optimistic assumption for a player who to date has never gone more than two years without a serious injury? Cano on the other hand has hardly missed a game over the last seven seasons.

DK
7:41 AM Dec 11th
 
ventboys
The 2014 Yankees could be the weakest team they've tossed out there since the early 1990s, and maybe the 1960s. Gawd what an awful looking roster... it's The Expendables III; every available old expensive former action player showing up to relive their past glory - or something.
9:23 PM Dec 10th
 
OldBackstop
Nice article, Dave.

What I take away from this is, the Yankees let their homegrown slugging 2nd baseman HOFer leave, and, signed two guys to replace him who will cost exactly the same amount of money for the next seven years, and more for the next six.

McCann's history says he will give you 20 HRs, 73 ribbies, hit .277, and be a good backstop, or did/was in his 20s. Some people are down on him for the Gomez incident -- I loved it. Old school leadership. But Cash introduced him and talked about the HOF....seriously? The HOFer just signed with the Mariners, Brian. He's 30, a catcher, and coming off a dinged year, so you can expect if he is injury-free to get 130 games out of him (he doesn't play first, and the Yankees line for DH goes out the door)). McCann is a nice catcher, but there is a ton of offense at that position right now in the majors, and if the reason they let Robby go was they had to spend the money on McCann, that is insane. Catchers age like a fine wine -- they will probably give you headaches.

Ellsbury...well, straight up, I'd prefer Brett, money not an issue. Ellsbury is one dimensional -- speed --and the dimension is one that should be fading his defense and offense starting about...NOW.

With Robby you had a guy who was headed out to Monument Park, was giving you 160 games year in, year out, and had a game (power) and a position (2nd) that would wear well with age into his 30s.

Meaning...he wasn't a speed CFer or a catcher heading into his 30s.

So the question is, would you pay the exact same amount of money for the next seven years for Robbie, or for McCann + Ellsbury. I'd take Robbie. That three years beyond seven....well, I'm guessing even a diminished Robbie will put out better years than you will see somewhere along the line from our new aging speed CFer and catcher. And if Robbie is going to be so horrible at 37....why sign Beltran to patrol the OF?

Great article, Dave.


9:22 PM Dec 10th
 
mikeclaw
I'm curious … why do you assume Brett Gardner plays less in 2014? I'm looking at the Yankees' collection of outfield talent, and I see their primary lineup as Gardner in LF, Ellsbury in RF, Beltran in RF and Soriano at DH. Beltran will need some time off, or some time at DH. That leaves Ichiro and Wells as spare parts, and I don't see any reason to assume the Yankees would sit Gardner any more than necessary to give them playing time.
8:43 PM Dec 10th
 
casejud
Excellent article!

What do you think this does for Seattle? I think it as an excellent use of resources. I think that this, one, 24 mil $ player is worth more to them than two 12mil ones, or three 8 mil ones.

It gives them a cornerstones offensive player at a defensive spot, and a player who is suited to put up offense in Seattle's ballpark.
8:26 PM Dec 10th
 
 
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