Robinson Cano and Second Base Aging Curves

The Yankees have a long standing policy against negotiating contract extensions for players under contract, preferring instead to wait until the player reaches free agency to hash out a new deal. They even held that line with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, two of the iconic players in franchise history, so it hasn’t just been selectively applied here and there. So, it was pretty interesting to hear that the Yankees are ignoring that policy with Robinson Cano, and have confirmed that they recently made Scott Boras a “significant offer” to get him from becoming a free agent after the season.

Brian Cashman’s answer for why they’ve changed course with Cano:

“Since we’re the team, we have a right to change our minds and adjust the policy whenever, especially ownership,” Cashman said. “It’s not like it’s a country club, and here’s the code of conduct that you can’t deviate from. We’ve had a history of doing things a certain way, but it doesn’t mean that it has to be that way every day.”

For the Yankees to shift policy and extend Cano an offer now suggests that they’re both a little scared of what his price might be if he gets to free agency, and that they’re comfortable with how well he’ll age that they don’t need to see his age-30 season before deciding to sign up for the rest of his decline phase. The fear about his price if the Dodgers get involved is certainly valid, but should the fact that Cano is a second baseman scare the Yankees away from making a long term commitment to him before they have gathered all the information possible by letting him play out the 2013 season?

Second baseman, if you haven’t heard, have a reputation for falling apart without much notice. Edgardo Alfonso, Carlos Baerga, Marcus Giles, Chuck Knoblauch, and even Roberto Alomar all went from being pretty terrific players to completely unproductive in a hurry. Most recently, Chase Utley has seen his production tumble, as injuries have begun to take their toll, and he’s been less productive at the plate than he was during his prime. The anecdotal evidence about the detrimental affects of playing the position — taking hard slides while turning the double play is the most often cited reason — are there, but anecdotal evidence can be selectively applied, and Cano is clearly a better player than most of the guys who fell apart earlier than expected. How concerned should the Yankees be about making a long term commitment to a second baseman headed for his age-30 season?

The evidence suggests that he’s not any more of a risk than a great player at any other position on the field. Over the last 50 years, there have been six second baseman (Cano included) who have put up a 130 wRC+ or better from ages 26 to 29. Here’s how the list of second baseman since 1963 who spent their prime years just bashing the baseball:

Chase Utley 2,687 9% 16% 0.236 0.330 0.305 0.385 0.541 0.395 137 57.1 18.8 31.0
Joe Morgan 2,725 15% 8% 0.157 0.280 0.276 0.389 0.433 0.375 135 12.0 22.5 30.1
Rod Carew 2,555 10% 8% 0.100 0.372 0.348 0.410 0.449 0.386 143 2.0 8.1 25.5
Robinson Cano 2,748 7% 12% 0.220 0.323 0.314 0.365 0.534 0.384 138 3.2 24.3
Dick McAuliffe 2,160 14% 16% 0.187 0.274 0.254 0.361 0.441 0.361 134 15.0 (3.6) 21.8
Craig Biggio 2,612 12% 13% 0.155 0.323 0.294 0.390 0.449 0.374 134 (20.0) 6.7 19.7

As you can see, Cano has put himself in some pretty good company. Now, here’s how the other five players on that list performed starting with their age-31 season, which is the years that the Yankees would be buying out with a long term deal for Cano.

Joe Morgan 5,390 17% 9% 0.163 0.272 0.270 0.396 0.433 0.376 136 (25.0) 39.5 49.5
Craig Biggio 7,299 8% 15% 0.167 0.308 0.279 0.357 0.446 0.351 110 (29.0) 18.6 36.8
Rod Carew 4,915 11% 9% 0.096 0.355 0.327 0.403 0.424 0.370 130 12.0 (5.8) 31.4
Chase Utley 1,327 11% 12% 0.169 0.274 0.264 0.367 0.433 0.351 119 24.0 12.5 12.6
Dick McAuliffe 1,735 12% 13% 0.141 0.245 0.231 0.324 0.372 0.319 98 (9.0) (0.3) 6.8

Finally, here are the same players, just with the changes in both their playing time and their production in that playing time during the two different timeframes.

Name 26-29 PA/Year 31+ PA/Year 26-29 WAR/600 31+ WAR/600 PA% Decline WAR% Decline
Joe Morgan 681 539 6.6 5.5 21% 17%
Craig Biggio 653 664 4.5 3.0 -2% 33%
Rod Carew 639 546 6.0 3.8 15% 36%
Chase Utley 672 442 6.9 5.7 34% 18%
Dick McAuliffe 540 434 6.1 2.4 20% 61%
Average 637 525 6.0 4.1 18% 33%

Overall, the group lost an average of about 100 plate appearances per year and went from playing like +6 win players to playing like +4 win players when they did take the field. McAuliffe had the biggest decline, as he was essentially done as a useful player by age 34, but one guy falling apart out of five isn’t the clear trend that the reputation of aging second baseman would suggest. Even including McAuliffe, these five players averaged 3.5 WAR per season after they turned 31. Hardly a group that just fell apart after their prime was over.

If we give Cano a projection of just below the group’s average performance for his age 31-40 seasons — Utley’s further decline will likely pull the +3.5 WAR per season average down slightly as he gets older — assuming he’ll have enough leverage to land a nine year deal, the Yankees would be paying for around +30 WAR over the life of the deal. If you assume something like 5% inflation annually over the next nine years, the average price of a win during Cano’s contract would be in the $7 million per win range, which would place a fair market deal in the range of $210 million. Projecting long term inflation isn’t easy, especially with the varying television deals being struck lately, so that might even be a bit of an undershot — we saw most of the premium free agents this year sign for more than the crowd expected when the winter began.

There’s no question that Scott Boras is going to be using the Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, and Joey Votto contracts as his starting points in negotiations. Votto signed away his age 30-39 seasons for $225 million, and was two years away from free agency when he got that contract. Fielder signed his 28-36 seasons for $214 million, but isn’t as good as good of a player as Cano and had his market limited to AL teams because of his body type. Pujols signed his age 32-41 seasons for $240 million, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the contract Boras tried to beat if he gets Cano to free agency.

At some point in the near future, Robinson Cano is going to become a very, very rich man. The fact that he plays second base probably won’t hurt him in negotiations much, as the evidence that great second baseman age worse than other positions doesn’t really hold up very well. Cano won’t be a +6 win player in his 30s, but he doesn’t have to be to be worth $200+ million on his next deal. If the Yankees want to keep him from free agency, their “generous offer” is almost certainly going to have to start with a two.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Elite first basemen retain much more value age 31-38 than second basemen (or shortstops).