Let’s start with one of the most prominent actors in this Hot Stove soap opera: Robinson Cano, the All-Star free agent who supposedly has few options but to return to New York.
The Ellsbury signing won’t prevent Cano from re-signing with the Yankees. In fact, that remains the likeliest outcome — particularly now that the Yankees seem to have remembered that they are the Yankees and dispensed (in deed, if not word) with this claptrap about a $189 million spending limit.
But was Tuesday a good day for Team Cano? No, it was not.
It was, however, quite favorable for the Yankees — who remain the chief negotiating adversary for Jay-Z (Cano’s celebrity representative) and his associates at Creative Artists Agency.
The Yankees are ahead of Cano on the PR scoreboard, demonstrating to their fans a clear desire to spend (and win) by landing Brian McCann and Ellsbury at this relatively early juncture in the offseason. If Cano signs elsewhere, the Yankees can tell their fans, "We offered him a lot of money. We were very patient. But other All-Star-caliber players had a greater desire to play for us.'' That’s not a bad spin — certainly more compelling than what Cano’s camp would be able to craft at this point.
And let’s not forget one of the primary players in this drama: Scott Boras, the agent Cano fired earlier this year to hire Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports and CAA. Boras also is the agent for Ellsbury — of course — and rare is the offseason intrigue that does not conclude with Boras laughing last.
By delivering Ellsbury to The Bronx, Boras is poised to collect an estimated $7.65 million in commission. And money earmarked for Boras’ client — and Boras himself — is money the Yankees can’t spend on the player who fired him.
The sound you heard in the distance Tuesday night was the satisfied chuckle from Boras HQ in Newport Beach, Calif.
Make no mistake: The Yankees still need Cano, or someone close to him. Cano has averaged more than 28 home runs per season over the past five years, to go along with an .899 OPS. The Yankees can’t be certain they will get similar production from another player on the current roster — not Ellsbury, not McCann, not the recuperating Mark Teixeira, not the aging Derek Jeter, and certainly not Alex Rodriguez. Alfonso Soriano showed this year that his bat remains electric, but he’s about to turn 38.
But is it possible Cano lands elsewhere? Yes, because the Yankees could turn to a cheaper alternative such as Shin-Soo Choo (Boras client) or Carlos Beltran (former Boras client) and focus the leftover millions on a beleaguered rotation that remains two credible starters short of challenging Ellsbury’s former teammates in Boston.
(It remains to be seen if the Yankees will be able to acquire Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka; one source said the Japanese baseball league is willing to accept a maximum on posting bids by MLB teams, which could negate the Yankees’ spending might and hurt their ability to acquire him this offseason.)
Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners — perpetual also-rans in the American League West — are much more than a bystander in these machinations.
The Mariners, one source told me Tuesday, are intent on landing Cano in free agency, or center fielder Matt Kemp via trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a glaring need for offense and have money to spend. A franchise that once supported an Opening Day payroll near $118 million has only two players (Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma) guaranteed to earn more than $2 million in 2014, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That is the definition of payroll flexibility.
There’s only one problem: The Mariners have had a hard time finding players — particularly power hitters — willing to take their money. They pursued Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton as free agents, only to watch them sign elsewhere. They worked out a deal for Justin Upton last winter, only for him to block it using his no-trade clause. A decade of mismanagement has transformed a once-model franchise, set in an alluring city, into a team that could relocate to Vladivostok without many free agents taking notice.
Sluggers look at Safeco Field’s pitcher-friendly environment — along with the 12-year playoff drought and arduous travel for a non-West Coaster — and often say no, thanks, to the Mariners’ millions. Why would Cano be different? An even better question: Could Jay-Z, the noted Yankees fan, sustain the PR hit of his first high-profile baseball signing with a forgotten franchise on the other side of the continent?
The answer to each is the same: The Mariners would need to give Cano an absurd amount of money, such that the massive gap between their offer and the Yankees’ offer made the decision defensible. On that score, Ellsbury’s decision to accept $153 million from the Steinbrenners (in theory) helped the Mariners.
I still expect Cano to sign with the Yankees. And then I expect the Mariners will redouble their efforts to acquire Kemp from the Dodgers. With Cano off the board, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti could exact more favorable terms (in players and cash) from Seattle counterpart Jack Zduriencik. And Kemp — unlike Upton at this time last year — would be powerless to stop them. Kemp has six years and $128 million left on his contract, but he doesn’t have a no-trade clause.
But that’s only one prediction, a perilous endeavor at this time of year. Tuesday proved as much.
We’ll be talking about the ramifications of those 24 hours until another tremor sends shockwaves through the industry. Don’t be surprised if the names you just read are involved in the next one, too.