It was pretty weird when Alex Rodriguez left the Mariners for the Rangers. It was weird when Jose Reyes left the Mets for the Marlins, and it was weird when Albert Pujols left the Cardinals for the Angels. There have been unexpected big-money moves in free agency before, but this one feels like it might be unprecedented, given who the Yankees are, and given who the Mariners are and have been. It makes total sense, of course — Robinson Cano couldn’t turn down ten guaranteed years — but the fact of the matter is that the Yankees lost a superstar to a team that’s been an also-ran, a team criticized for not opening up its wallet. This is not what people expected would happen, as little as a month ago.
This is a page of 2014 Steamer projections. You’ll find Cano seventh in projected WAR, between Troy Tulowitzki and David Wright. No matter how you look at it, Cano, right now, is among baseball’s very best position players. The Yankees don’t have him anymore. Look at the rest of that first page of projections and you’ll notice most of the top WAR guys are unavailable. They are, rightfully, under control and difficult to acquire. The Yankees need to figure out life after Robinson Cano, but despite the sequence of events, the team has already started. Really, he’s already been replaced.
That’s going to be the focus in New York, at least among fans and media types. Cano leaves a gaping hole — now Cano needs to be replaced, ideally by someone else who’s really good. It was cute when the Yankees signed Kelly Johnson as insurance, but Kelly Johnson isn’t an infield starter. He’s a potentially helpful reserve, and nothing much more on a team that isn’t the Marlins.
In a sense, the Yankees replaced Robinson Cano before they’d officially even lost him. They didn’t replace him with a second baseman, but, the Yankees reportedly refused to give Cano more than seven guaranteed years. They just the other day gave seven guaranteed expensive years to Jacoby Ellsbury, for a slightly lower total commitment than they were offering to Cano. Ellsbury’s a year younger, and the last three seasons, he and Cano have been of similar value. The only thing holding Ellsbury back is that he missed time with a shoulder injury after being fallen on, and by WAR/600 plate appearances, Ellsbury and Cano have been essentially equivalent. Cano, of course, has been more durable. Cano, of course, is more familiar, and he hits for more power. But Ellsbury does things that Cano doesn’t do so well, and he’s a star on his own right, and even if you like Cano more going forward, the difference can’t be huge. Not reasonably.
The Yankees have lost one star up the middle, and they’ve gained another star up the middle, at a different position. And, hell, as long as we’re here, we’ve got to acknowledge the Brian McCann acquisition, which is a massive upgrade over what the Yankees featured a year ago behind the plate. Combined, the Yankees got Ellsbury and McCann for two more guaranteed years than Cano is getting by himself, and McCann can do everything you want an upper-level catcher to do. He’s outstanding, and probably a bit underrated.
The sequence makes this feel gloomier, because the most recent thing that’s happened is that the Yankees have lost Cano to the Mariners. But imagine that that happened a few weeks ago. Imagine that the Yankees responded by quickly signing both Ellsbury and McCann. That would make the picture better, and it would be exactly the same as the current reality. The hardest work is already done.
But, all right, the Yankees were still in on Cano to the end, implying that there’s still room in the budget and money they intended to give to a star. There is work left to be done, and the Yankees do need to maximize their remaining flexibility now that Cano is off the market. To make sense of the situation, forget about Cano’s name. Forget about trying to get over the loss of a superstar. In the short term, Cano projects to be worth about five or six wins. The Yankees can make that up, without making a decade-long commitment.
A convenient thing about these Yankees is that they’re easily upgradeable. They need a second baseman, now, and the guy to whom they’ve been linked most often is Omar Infante. That’s far from automatic, but the Yankees would be the most likely destination, and just last year Infante was one of the better second basemen in baseball. He projects for a little over two wins, but the last two seasons he’s been worth 3.4 WAR/600 plate appearances. While he’s not Cano, he’s a real starter, which the Yankees don’t currently have. They could land Infante for a modest commitment.
The situation at third base is kind of up in the air, what with the Alex Rodriguez mystery, but without Rodriguez, it’s a hole. The Yankees have been tied to Chase Headley in the past, but that’s never come close to materializing. Interestingly, Juan Uribe is a free agent. He’s 34 years old, and in 2011, he was bad. In 2012, he was bad. In 2013, by our numbers, he was worth 5.1 WAR in 132 games. Of course, Uribe isn’t that good, and word is he’s been looking for a three-year deal, but he’s adequate, and he’s not going to get a three-year deal. If the Yankees feel like they won’t have Rodriguez next season, Uribe would make them better at the the hot corner, even if he wouldn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows.
And then there are the other holes. The Yankees are currently tied to Carlos Beltran, and Beltran could help as a DH/RF who’s better than Alfonso Soriano. Naturally, there’s the question of how much better, and Beltran doesn’t look so good at three years and $48 million, but the Yankees don’t project well at DH or in right field, according to Steamer, so that could be something to target. There’s also Shin-Soo Choo, who’s coming off a year of Uribe/Cano-type value. Choo has his own question marks, and what seems like a broad market, but whenever he signs, it’ll be for a fraction of the Cano commitment. In 2014, Choo should be worse than Cano, but not by a whole lot.
As far as the starting rotation is concerned, there’s word that Hiroki Kuroda might well be on the way back for a year. For an average annual value of about $15 million, the Yankees could probably have their pick of Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez. The new Japanese posting rules seem to make it less likely that Masahiro Tanaka will end up with the Yankees, since more teams will be involved and since more money will count against the payroll, but once that gets going the Yankees could easily end up looking like one of the favorites. It depends on how they position themselves, and on how patient they feel like being. Tanaka has it in him to be a front-of-the-rotation starter for several years, the kind of pitcher the Yankees lack.
Without Robinson Cano, the Yankees ought to be just fine, at least relative to what they’d be with him. They’ll miss him, but really, what they’ll miss is short-term Cano, and beyond the next few seasons he doesn’t project to be elite, or even significantly above-average. And in the short-term, they can make up for Cano by distributing that money in a few different places. It’s worth noting that, when the Mariners lost Alex Rodriguez, they improved. When the Cardinals lost Albert Pujols, they went to the NLCS. When the Mets lost Jose Reyes, they dropped all of three wins. When the Rangers lost Josh Hamilton, they dropped all of two wins. When the Indians lost Manny Ramirez, they gained a win and went to the playoffs. The history isn’t that losing a superstar is devastating. It’s that it’s survivable, and the Yankees have already made two major positive acquisitions.
Instead of Cano’s familiar value, the Yankees can go forward getting different but similar if not superior value. It’s a change, and that’s going to be weird at first, but different doesn’t automatically mean worse. Probably, in truth, this way the Yankees will be better off. That’ll be clearer when the shock goes away.
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