August 14, 2013

Robinson Cano leads the Yankees in virtually every offensive category, including batting average (.291), home runs (22) and RBIs (73).
Kathy Willens/AP

With just six weeks left in the season, it's becoming clear that Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano is going to become a free agent. There are no rumblings of negotiations -- just the opposite, in fact -- and it's rare that an impending free agent signs this late in the season. The possibility now exists that New York will lose Cano, which would not only rip a gaping hole in its 2014 lineup but lay waste to the team's multi-year strategy of getting under the luxury-tax threshold.

Cano is the Yankees lineup. Their position players have produced 11.1 bWAR, 5.0 of which are Cano's -- 45% of the total. The injuries to New York's veteran hitters have left Cano as an island amidst a series of waiver pickups. He has already set a career-high with 16 intentional walks and is two free passes from a career high in overall walks. The concept of lineup protection has been shown over and over again to be myth; players don't hit any better depending upon who bats behind them. However, good hitters' walk totals will rise if the gap between them and the hitter behind them is wide enough.

That's the story of Cano's 2013, and it underlines the Yankees' quandary: They cannot afford to lose him. A 2014 New York team without Cano, with no young talent and built on the hopes that a number of aging players can have last-gasp seasons, would be a disaster.

The Yankees' decision to get under a $189 million payroll in 2014, so as to reset their status under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and save tens of millions of dollars in luxury-tax payments, always assumed they would need substantial payroll space to sign Cano. The decisions to allow Nick Swisher and Russell Martin to leave and to replace them with inexpensive talent, which have negatively impacted the 2013 team, were about making sure the franchise wasn't overburdened by 2014 commitments so as to allow for Cano's salary. Were the Yankees to lose Cano, not only would that payroll space likely go to waste but the team would have sacrificed 2013 for nothing.

There's no player like Cano, a 31-year-old established superstar, on the market. The next-best players, such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza and Shin-Soo Choo -- have nothing like Cano's track record, nothing like Cano's peak, nothing like Cano's durability. There's no good backup plan for the Yankees to spend the money earmarked for their incumbent second baseman.

This gives Cano enormous leverage in negotiations. New York needs Cano in 2014, and it needs him to justify its 2013, and it has no other good way to spend the money. Without him the trickle of fan revolt the team has seen over the last year could become a flood. The Chase Utley contract -- Utley signed a two-year deal with the Phillies last week -- amps up the pressure, as there's no good alternative to Cano for filling the second-base hole. Utley would have been a strong backup plan for teams pursuing Cano; without him there are no second basemen younger than 32 available, and the best of the bunch is Omar Infante.

Complicating matters for the Yankees are the Dodgers. They can pick up Mark Ellis' $5.75 million option, but while Ellis is a good player, he's not a star and he's 36 years old. If Los Angeles, flush with cash, with motivated owners and, perhaps, having learned the lesson in 2013 that spending money on superstars works, could bid up Cano substantially. The Dodgers, far over the luxury-tax threshold, will be paying a premium on every dollar they offer Cano, but there's little indication that's a concern for their front office. The Yankees, in an ironic twist, may find themselves unable to match the spending of a team willing to blast through the tax threshold to put the best players on the field.

Cano not only has a fantastic track record, but he projects well for a second baseman. He is George Brett with durability and more positional value. Brett, the Royals' Hall of Fame third baseman, was a four-win player with the bat in his 30s, missing about 30 games a year and adding nothing, on balance, beyond his offense. Cano doesn't have speed to lose, and he's averaged 160 games a year the past six full seasons. From ages 31-36, Brett would continue to miss time due to injury, but when he played he batted .300/.390/.498 for a 143 OPS+, while slowly spending more time at first base and DH and rapidly losing the speed he showed in his 20s. Even if Cano loses range at second base, he may still hit enough to be a contributor at first base or DH later in his career -- Lou Whitaker's path is instructive here.

Either way, Cano is going to get paid, and there's every chance he's going to set a record in doing so. Take a look at the last few offseasons. Albert Pujols was 32 and got $24 million a year. Josh Hamilton was 32 and got $26.6 million a year despite being one of the most high-risk free agents ever. Zack Greinke, a pitcher, got $26.5 million and he's had one year in his career as a superstar. Cano hits the market younger than both Pujols and Hamilton, coming off another MVP-caliber season as the indisputable No. 1 talent on the market and does so at a time when the only place teams can compete for talent using money is on major league free agents. His top two suitors will be the two highest-revenue, highest-payroll teams in baseball, one of whom has crafted a multi-year strategy predicated on signing him.

Robinson Cano, $30 Million Man.

The Yankees will probably find a way to keep Cano and stay under the tax threshold, but by waiting this long, they're going to be forced to up the ante and in the process, and that could make Cano the first player to average $30 million a year on a new deal. Maybe it's seven years for $210 million, maybe it's 8/$240M, but when you consider the most recent free agents, the upcoming market and the teams in pursuit, it's clear that Cano is going to break the next round-number barrier.

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