Mariners Break the Bank, Hope Robinson Cano Defies Odds

This time around, there was no Mystery Team. Rather than reports of back room dealings or whispers of an unreported offer, this courtship was about as public as it gets. The Mariners wanted Robinson Cano, and were willing to pay a premium to get him. And with the Yankees holding firm on their offer at roughly $175 million over seven years, the Mariners convinced Cano to leave New York by simply blowing away the next best offer. The final tally, according to Enrique Rojas: $240 million over 10 years.

It’s a monster of a contract, tied for the third largest in baseball history. Alex Rodriguez has signed two contracts larger than this, and Albert Pujols signed this same contract with the Angels two years ago. The Rangers paid the Yankees to take the first A-Rod deal off their hands, the Yankees are hoping MLB helps them get out from under part of the second one, and I just rated the Pujols contract as the most untradable contract in baseball a few months back. So, yeah, the history of contracts at this level isn’t exactly flowing with reasons for optimism.

That said, there’s a difference between $240 million in 2014 and $252 million in 2001. The relative value of what you can buy for $25 million a year has changed a lot over the last decade, and relative to the contracts being signed at the time, this isn’t really at the same level of either of the first two A-Rod contracts. The Pujols comparison is more fair, since it’s just a few years old and at the same price, but noting that the Pujols deal has become a disaster does not mean that the Cano deal is bound to be a disaster too. As I wrote in my piece on the Jacoby Ellsbury signing, we can find an example of any kind of player or contract that went poorly. Simply pointing out that the Pujols contract looks like a big mistake isn’t all that helpful.

That said, we generally know how these deals work: teams take on a lot of dead money at the end of long term contracts in exchange for getting early contract AAVs that are significant bargains relative to a player’s performance. Cano, for the next 3-5 years, is likely going to be worth far more than the $24 million per year he’ll be making, and if they backload the contract, the value up is going to be shifted even more to the front. For the next few seasons, Robinson Cano is going to be a huge bargain.

And that he’s going to be a huge albatross. The last few years of this deal are going to suck for the Mariners. It’s why the Yankees drew a line in the sand at seven years; they didn’t want to pay Cano $25 million per year age ages 38-40, because they’ve witnessed the negative effects of spending huge chunks of money on near useless players, even if you have a lot of money to spend. The Yankees decided that Cano’s short term value simply wasn’t worth the long term cost. The Mariners have decided that it is.

Who is right? Well, it depends on a few things, basically.

1. At what point does Cano switch from being an asset (relative to his actual yearly salary, not his overall contract) to a liability? The Pujols deal looks so atrocious because that point was actually year two, and it doesn’t like he’ll be worth his salary in any season from here on out. The Angels got one year of value and nine years of dead weight. That sucks. We shouldn’t expect the same from Cano, though.

Steamer projects Cano to be worth +5.4 WAR in 635 plate appearances next year. If you just started at that level and then subtracted half a win per season over the next 10 years, you’d end up with a forecast of +31.5 WAR over the next 10 years. Dan Szymborski tweeted out his 10 year ZIPS projection for Cano, and it’s actually even more encouraging.

Because he’s projecting very little decline over the next three seasons, the total forecast from ZIPS is +35 WAR over those 10 years. At +32 WAR, we’d be looking at $7.5 million per win; at +35 WAR, we’re looking at $6.9 million per win. That’s actually a little less than what the Yankees paid for Jacoby Ellsbury, and pretty much in line with the average price of a win in the market this winter. From that perspective, this isn’t actually a huge overpay, relative to what other free agents are expected to produce and what they have been signing for this winter.

But, not every market value contract is a good idea for every team. That’s the second part of the calculation; can the Mariners actually extract value from Cano in the years in which he’s expected to still be a premier player? This is a team that won 71 games and were outscored by 130 runs a year ago. By my estimation, before signing Cano, they were something like the 12th best team in the American League, better only than the Twins, White Sox, and Astros. Adding Cano certainly makes them better, but it probably pushes them up to being something like the 9th best team in the AL; they are still clearly not anywhere near the level of the Red Sox, Tigers, A’s, Rangers, or Rays, and still look to be comfortably behind the Royals, Indians, and Blue Jays. They’re now comparable to the Orioles, or the Yankees before they spend any more money. Robinson Cano doesn’t turn the Mariners into a good team.

But the Mariners aren’t done either. They’ve been linked to David Price. They now have to trade Nick Franklin, since Robinson Cano just took his job, and perhaps they can ship him to a team like Kansas City, Toronto, or Atlanta for a piece of some value that could upgrade another position. And they still have money to spend, as even with Cano, they’re probably still only looking at around $60 to $65 million in payroll for 2014. If they push that towards $100 million, they could easily still sign two or three free agents to fill some of the holes on the team and make themselves a more serious contender.

But I still can’t shake the feeling that the Mariners are traveling on the path that the 2013 Royals just took. They pushed in for James Shields and Wade Davis, traded for Ervin Santana, and signed Jeremy Guthrie in order to revamp their rotation and make a run at the playoffs. They went from 72 wins to 86 wins.

It was a huge improvement. It wasn’t enough, though. They still missed the playoffs, and now they have one year left before James Shields hits free agency; if they don’t win this year, then they gave up four years of Wil Myers to just be a slightly better runner-up.

I’m not opposed to bad teams trying to get better. In fact, I’m all for teams trying to win, even if they haven’t done so lately. I don’t think you have to be good before you should spend money, or try to make yourself into a contender. I do think, however, that teams should be realistic about the probabilities of contending, and should reserve their extreme future-for-present moves until they’re at a point at which upgrading in the short term is likely to push the team into the critical area where wins are most valuable.

If the Mariners were an 83 or 84 win team and then added Robinson Cano, that would make them a pretty legitimate contender, and perhaps the short term boost of a playoff run would help justify the long term cost of signing up for dead money years at the end of this deal. But I just don’t see an 83 win team around Robinson Cano. I see four above average players — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kyle Seager, and Brad Miller — and then a host of players who range from somewhere between terrible and maybe useful. There’s potential, certainly, with guys like Taijuan Walker and Mike Zunino, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that a few kids could take big steps forward and help make the Mariners a good team again, but possible isn’t probable. You make moves based on what’s likely, not on what would be fun if it all worked.

Maybe the Mariners will find a way to add David Price without costing themselves a pitcher off their current rotation. Maybe they’ll make three or four good free agent signings that add enough value to push the team towards that 90 win mark for the next few years. It is possible. This could work.

It could also be a total disaster, though. If the other moves don’t come together, or simply aren’t enough to turn a bad team into a good team, the Mariners could easily have the best second baseman in baseball surrounded by a supporting cast that still doesn’t leave them with a better than .500 club. And this team is very vulnerable to injuries, especially to either Cano or Hernandez, who represent a huge chunk of the team’s chances of contention. A prolonged DL stint by either one probably sinks their season.

There’s upside and risk, as there is with every deal. For me, though, this is too much risk and not enough upside. When the Angels signed Albert Pujols a few years ago, I concluded with this:

I don’t know that spending $25 million per year on Pujols is actually going to provide a better return than using that money to lock up some combination of Aybar, Kendrick, and Haren, and if the Angels have to let several of those players go to keep their payrolls at reasonable levels, it’s not clear that they’ve actually improved their ability to contend during the time when Pujols still projects as an elite player.

If the Cardinals had signed him to this same deal, I think I probably could have talked myself into it. Pujols is great enough that this kind of contract isn’t totally crazy on its face, but when you look at the context of the Angels situation and how much this actually improves them, I just don’t know that this is how they should have spent $250 million. Perhaps Arte Moreno will approve payroll increases up to $200 million and they’ll be able to keep the core of their team together, but if I was an Angels fan, I’d be a little worried that I might be heading to the park to watch Pujols play with a cast of teammates that just aren’t quite good enough to keep up with the Rangers in the AL West.

The Angels are now contenders in 2012, but I don’t know if the present value added for the next year or two is worth the long term consequences of this contract. The Angels are going to need a lot of things to break their way in order for this to work.

I think I feel mostly the same here. This deal isn’t totally crazy on its face. There are reasonable forecasts that suggest that Cano could actually produce more value than you’d expect by spreading $240 million around across multiple players. But I don’t love the context of this deal. I don’t see the Mariners as being well positioned to take advantage of Cano’s value years. Like the Royals of last year, they wanted to move up their window to win, and they paid a big long term cost in order to do so. But it’s not clear that the window to win was close enough to reality to make it a good trade-off, and the risks associated with this kind of plan are extremely high.

There are scenarios where this works out for the Mariners. There are more scenarios where Cano (and whatever else they add this winter) isn’t enough to help make this team good while he’s still producing relative to his contract, or where he simply doesn’t age particularly well and the contract turns into an albatross earlier than expected.

The Mariners have made a big bet on the second half of Robinson Cano’s career. Other elite second baseman have aged pretty well, and perhaps Cano will be more Joe Morgan than Roberto Alomar. The Mariners are now betting on it, and betting that the rest of their roster can get good enough to get Cano to the playoffs to justify this investment. We’ll see if it works out. I’d say I’m skeptical.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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