As game's best 2B sign long deals, Cano readies for major payday
This has been a bad week for any team hoping to fill an organization hole at second base by making a big free agent splash in the next couple of years. Indeed, the growing trend in which teams hand out long and often expensive contract extensions to their stars before they ever reach the open market has been particularly noteworthy at second base. As a result, it could be many years before a star at that position can be had through free agency.
With two of the top second basemen in baseball, the Rangers' Ian Kinsler and the Reds' Brandon Phillips, signing extensions that will keep them under team control through 2017, just two of the top nine second basemen in baseball over the last three seasons (per Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, hereafter bWAR) are due to become free agents before 2015 (see table at right). Of those two, the Phillies' Chase Utley has been diminished by a degenerative knee condition, and the other, the Yankees' Robinson Cano, seems like a lock to be extended by his current team before reaching free agency after the 2013 season.
Outside of those nine men, the best second basemen in baseball over the next few seasons are likely to come from a group of young, team-controlled players who made their debuts in the last couple of seasons: Dustin Ackley of the Mariners, Jemile Weeks of the A's, Neil Walker of the Pirates, Danny Espinosa of the Nationals and Jason Kipnis of the Indians. The most veteran of those, Walker, won't become a free agent until after the 2016 season.
Adding those younger players to the above list accounts for 14 men, nearly half of the starting second basemen in the major leagues today. That means that, almost by definition, the second basemen who will be available as free agents or low-cost trade acquisitions in the next three years are all below average. Going back to that list of the top second basemen by bWAR over the last three years, after the top nine above, the next highest totals are owned by Omar Infante (7.7), Aaron Hill (7.5), Orlando Hudson (6.7), Kelly Johnson (6.3), Mark Ellis (5.4) and Freddy Sanchez (4.1). After that underwhelming group comes Walker, Espinosa and Ackley, who are sandwiched around Brian Roberts, another veteran whose career is being threatened by injury (in his case post-concussion syndrome).
Infante is 30, signed through 2013, and, despite his hot start this season, a career .276/.318/.396 hitter. Hill is also 30 and signed through 2013 and has hit .225/.285/.375 over the last two seasons despite a strong finish to the 2011 season after being acquired by the Diamondbacks at trading deadline. Hudson is 34 and well into his decline. Johnson is 30, a below-average fielder, and thought it wiser to accept arbitration from the Blue Jays than test the market after hitting .222/.304/.413 last year. Ellis will turn 35 in June and won't become a free agent until after the 2013 season, when he'll be 36. Sanchez is 34, played just 60 games last year due to shoulder surgery and is still on the disabled list. Marco Scutaro, who is now the Rockies' second baseman, didn't make the above list because he spent most of the last three seasons at shortstop. His 11.9 bWAR over the last three seasons would actually rank ahead of Kendrick and Phillips, but he's already 36.
All of this is bad news for contenders who could use upgrades at the keystone, like the Tigers, Cardinals, Giants, and post-Utley Phillies. Who is it good news for? Cano and Scott Boras.
Cano hired Boras as his agent in February 2011 after his superstar turn in 2010, when he hit .319/.381/.534 with 29 homers and 109 runs batted in, won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger and finished third in the AL MVP voting. Last year, he again started the All-Star game and won the Silver Slugger, finished sixth in the MVP voting, set career highs in RBIs (118), and runs scored (104) and, at the end of the year, ascended to the third spot in the Yankees' batting order, where he remains this year.
There's a debate to be had about whether Cano, Pedroia, or Kinsler is the best second baseman in the game right now, but Cano is the only one with the ability to test the market prior to 2015. Kinsler's extension -- with the option included it could be worth up to $80 million over six years -- has set the bar. Cano's next contract is all but guaranteed to clear it. A rough starting point would be something around $100 million over seven years. Such a deal would take Cano through his age-37 season (Kinsler's option is for his age-36 season) and saddle the Yankees with yet another burdensome contract in its later years. Still, given the lack of availability of even acceptably inferior alternatives and the Yankees' ever-present win-now mandate, New York won't have a choice.