Mariners got Cano by showing him the money Yankees wouldn't

Friday December 6th, 2013

After nine years in the Bronx, Robinson Cano reportedly agreed to a 10-year, $240 million deal with Seattle.
Chuck Solomon/SI

The Seattle Mariners wanted Robinson Cano more than the New York Yankees did. You can take your legacy in pinstripes and your New York marketing opportunities and your direct flights to the Dominican Republic and the Yankee hat Jay-Z claims to have made famous and all of it becomes less important if another team wants you more than the only organization you have known in your 13 years in professional baseball.

The reported 10-year, $240 million deal Cano agreed to with the Mariners on Friday is Albert Pujols 2.0. Two years ago the Angels offered Pujols $44 million more than did the Cardinals -- and that was not counting the $30 million in deferred money in St. Louis' offer and before the Cardinals cut a 10-year offer in half. Pujols later would say he was "bitter" about the way the St. Louis front office made him look "like the bad guy."

This departure has a similar smell. This time the Mariners offered Cano as much as $70 million more than New York. Real money. And Cano can look back at the New York front office the way Pujols did his former employers.

CORCORAN: Mariners reel in Cano with monster deal

In addition to the gap in dollars, New York played hardball with Cano while Seattle rolled out a welcome mat. Leaks out of the Yankees camp implied Cano would chase the dollars, that if he wanted $200 million he was as good as "gone" and that he wasn't the transcendent star player his agent, Jay-Z, liked to claim him to be. He wasn't this and he wasn't that. And in the middle of holding the hard line on Cano, the Yankees overpaid Jacoby Ellsbury with a seven-year, $153 million deal that is the third richest contract ever handed out to an outfielder.

Cano is a far, far superior player to Ellsbury. Cano has posted seven season with an OPS of .800 or greater; Ellsbury has done so once. Cano has played 150 or more games in a season seven times; Ellsbury has done so twice. Cano hits in the middle of a lineup; Ellsbury does not. And yet the Yankees saw only a $17 million difference between the two. The Mariners saw an $87 million difference. You tell me: Who wanted him more? And how does Cano not get that message? He's supposed to stay with the team that wanted him less because it's a closer flight to his native Dominican? Cano had phone conversations with Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, a Venezuelan who back in February signed a seven-year extension to stay in Seattle, about the distance from home. It is not a deal-breaker.

VERDUCCI: Ellsbury signing highlights wild Chico Salmon Day

Here's why this also is Pujols 2.0: The Mariners are enriched with a new regional television contract that makes this purchase enticing, if not downright necessary. Seattle is getting $2 billion over the next 17 years from the TV deal at a time when they are losing the attention of what used to be a terrific baseball town. The Mariners have lost about a million paid customers since 2007, a time in which soccer -- yes, soccer -- has been eclipsing the popularity of baseball in the Emerald City. Other than Hernandez, the Mariners had no players signed beyond next season. They spent about $84 million on payroll last year, which was less than what they had budgeted for players.

And so the Mariners could have gone about business as usual, adding second-tier players such as Nelson Cruz and repeating the Chone Figgins mistakes of the past, or they could think and spend big at a time when they have the money and the need.

Yes, 10 years is too long for a 31-year-old second baseman. But by now you have to understand that contracts are not handed out based on playing value in a vacuum. They are handed out with the cost of acquiring the player folded into the salary. To get Cano out of New York you had to create a monetary gap. To do that you have to add years.

The Mariners are a better team with Robinson Cano and they are not done yet. They can still go after free agent outfielders Cruz or Carlos Beltran and put a package together to trade for a pitcher like David Price, Jeff Samardzija or Brett Anderson. They just become a whole lot more relevant today -- more attractive to fans and free agents with Cano on board.

(One aside on Cano: the Mariners are getting a true franchise leader. Cano played a deferential role with the Yankees because it was Derek Jeter's team, but when I saw him play last spring for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, I saw a different Cano: vocal, demonstrative, emotional. He was the de facto team captain, leading team meetings and showing the vocal leadership on the field and in the dugout you didn't see in New York. It was a window into the role he will play for the Mariners.)

In a perfect world for Seattle, Cano and Hernandez both go into the Hall of Fame wearing Mariners caps and are the cornerstones of the first World Series team in Seattle history. In a worst-case scenario, you can buy and trade your way out of the contract if you need to, as the Tigers did with Prince Fielder, the Red Sox did with Adrian Gonzalez and the Rangers did with Alex Rodriguez, to name just three examples.

As for being stuck with an albatross of a contract that will prevent the Mariners from making other moves as Cano ages, think about how fast baseball revenues are growing. Over the past 10 years, revenues have doubled, from $4.5 billion in 2004 to what is expected to be $9 billion in 2014. Cano's contract is likely to eat up a smaller percentage of Seattle's payroll as he ages. What looks like a big problem today becomes a smaller one over time.

This is a historic signing, and not just because Cano joins Rodriguez and Pujols as the only players to be enriched with this kind of money. It's because for the first time in a generation, the Yankees lost a free agent they really wanted. They did want Cano, but they also wanted to stay true to the self-imposed $189 million salary cap for 2014 to re-set their competitive balance tax rate, a cost-saving mission that helped drive them to their worst record in 21 years last season as well as their second non-playoff season of the past six years.

There was a time, after the 1998 season, when another homegrown star, Bernie Williams, was ready to leave the Yankees for the Red Sox and a $90 million deal. At the last moment, the late owner George Steinbrenner swooped in and improved their offer to Williams from $60.5 million to $87.5 million, and Williams stayed. He wasn't about to leave the only organization he knew for $2.5 million. This time the Yankees didn't respond to the market for Cano. They made the decision that they would hold to their budget and the value they assigned to him. They can argue it was the prudent thing to do. But they are left without a homegrown superstar player, one of the best and most reliable players in baseball. Cano is a Mariner because they attached more value to his worth.

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