Free Agency officially begins on Tuesday, as players will have the right to begin negotiating with all 30 teams, and financial figures can start to be officially exchanged. No free agent is going to be asking for bigger numbers than Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. He is undisputedly the best player on the market this winter, and early reports have suggested that he’s looking for a monstrous contract, maybe even aiming to become baseball’s first $300 million player.
With any deal for a player of Cano’s stature, we’re essentially guaranteed a minimum of seven years, and recent trends suggest that elite position players — Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder most notably — have enough leverage to demand eight, nine, or even 10 year contracts. Joey Votto got a 10 year deal from the Reds when he was two years from free agency, effectively making that a 12 year commitment, and he didn’t even have the leverage of other teams bidding up his price. However, there’s one thing those three players all have in common; they play first base, and their value comes almost entirely from their hitting skills.
Cano is a second baseman, and while he’s an amazing hitter relative to other second baseman, his offense wouldn’t be quite so impressive at a less demanding position. A significant part of Cano’s value comes from the fact that he can play an up the middle position, and teams have historically not paid the same price for defensive value as they have for offensive value. Especially when it comes to signing a player into his late 30s — Cano just turned 31, so even an eight year deal would take him through his age-38 season — teams have historically been skeptical about betting on up the middle players sustaining their value, at least relative to the bets they are willing to make on players who derive their value from standing at the plate and hitting the ball really far.
More specifically, there seems to be a decent amount of skepticism about how second baseman in particular will hold up towards the end of their careers. Roberto Alomar, for instance, completely fell apart after his age-33 season, going from an MVP caliber star to a nearly worthless scrub almost overnight. He was one of the best players to ever man the position, but was totally washed up by his 34th birthday. One theory espoused for the unexpected and dramatic declines of second baseman; they take a physical beating from hanging in on the double play, having years of players slide into their legs and knees, and eventually, it just wears them down.
However, the theory is usually based on anecdotal evidence. It’s one thing to point to Roberto Alomar or Ryne Sandberg, but is there actually evidence that players who play second base and hit like Cano are more likely to flame out than players at other positions?
This is a little bit of a tricky question to answer simply because there are so few second baseman who hit like Robinson Cano. But, there have been some, and we can look at their careers to see if we see a pattern of early collapses.
For a fair comparison, here are the top five offensive second baseman over the last 50 years, from ages 28-30, sorted by wRC+:
Joe Morgan: 2,019 PA, 156 wRC+, +26.8 WAR
Rod Carew: 1,994 PA, 152 wRC+, +20.0 WAR
Robinson Cano: 2,059 PA, 142 wRC+, +19.1 WAR
Chase Utley: 2,007 PA, 141 wRC+, +23.4 WAR
Craig Biggio: 1,907 PA, 137 wRC+, +15.3 WAR
For all five, the playing time during those three seasons was pretty similar, ranging from 416 games for Biggio to 480 for Cano. He actually has more games played and more plate appearances during his age 28-30 seasons than any of the other four players on the list, so relative to his peers, durability seems to not be an issue.
How’d the other four do in the latter stages of their careers, performance wise, starting with their age-31 seasons? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Joe Morgan: 5,390 PA, 135 wRC+, +46.7 WAR
Craig Biggio: 6,744 PA, 113 wRC+, +33.6 WAR
Rod Carew: 4,915 PA, 130 wRC+, +28.4 WAR
Chase Utley: 1,858 PA, 121 wRC+, +15.9 WAR
Morgan played until he was 40, and was even better after turning 30 than he was before. His two best seasons came at ages 31 and 32, and even at the end of his career, he was still an excellent player. He played second base all the way to the end of his career as well, never moving to an easier position even after 20 years of turning double plays.
Biggio also had the two best years of his career at ages 31 and 32, and he played until he was 41, but he’s actually a bit more in the Alomar camp than the Morgan camp, as he was essentially an average player from 34-41. He hung around, but wasn’t a very effective player at the end of his career, and his decline from greatness to mediocrity was pretty swift. He was so good in his early 30s, however, that the overall performance during that span is still excellent.
Carew is a bit of a mix of the two, at least in terms of age-31 excellence, as he also had the best year of his career in that season, but he comes with a bit of a caveat; he moved to first base full time at age-30, and spent the second half of his career playing a much less demanding position. Still, the move to first base didn’t keep him from being a fantastic player in his 30s, as he retained almost all of his offensive value and was a very good player through age-36 before tailing off in his last few years.
Finally, we have the incomplete story of Chase Utley. He just finished his age-34 season, and his last four years have been full of injuries. However, Utley’s been so good when he has been on the field that he’s been at least a +3 WAR player in each of his age 31-34 seasons, even while only averaging 108 games per season. We don’t know what Utley’s next few years will look like, but if he represents the injury prone downside of taking a beating at second base, that’s a pretty great worst case scenario.
Of the four second baseman of the last 50 years who were comparable to Cano heading into a similar point in his career, two are in the Hall of Fame, one should be, and the active player will have a decent case if he can stick around for a few more years at the level he’s been playing recently. It’s hard to get a better set of comparables than that.
Maybe going to 8+ years for Cano won’t turn out to be a good idea, just as it doesn’t appear to have been a good idea to give Prince Fielder a nine year deal or Albert Pujols a 10 year deal. These long contracts come with tons of risk. However, the evidence that great second baseman in particular come with extra risk seems to be lacking. I’d be leery of giving any player on the wrong side of 30 a deal that runs for nearly a decade, but teams shouldn’t be less willing to give that kind of deal to Cano just because he plays second base.
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