It’s no longer safe to assume that Robinson Cano will remain a Yankee. Not from Cano’s perspective. Not from the Yankees’ perspective. Not from the perspective of any team that might be interested in the All-Star second baseman as a free agent this offseason.
The Yankees still must be considered the favorites to sign Cano, but the dynamics have shifted considerably since February, when general manager Brian Cashman acknowledged that the team had made the player a “significant” long-term offer.
Cano has changed agents, leaving Scott Boras for a partnership between Roc Nation Sports, a company founded by Jay-Z, and Creative Artists Agency (CAA).
The floundering, injury-depleted Yankees look increasingly likely to miss the postseason and might be growing less attractive to Cano as a long-term option.
And Cano, who will turn 31 on Oct. 22, has slumped since the All-Star Game, raising questions about whether he might be starting to decline just as he prepares to negotiate the biggest contract of his career.
Cano’s numbers since the break – a .241 batting average, .665 OPS and one home run in 97 plate appearances – can be dismissed as a relatively small sample. Prior to that, he was batting .302 with a .917 OPS and 21 homers in 409 plate appearances, approaching or even exceeding his career averages.
Still, the Yankees were burned by the 10-year, $275 million free-agent contract they awarded third baseman Alex Rodriguez at age 32 and to a lesser extent by the eight-year, $180 million free-agent deal they gave first baseman Mark Teixeira at age 29.
How far will they want to go with Cano?
Cano is showing signs of slippage defensively, according to John Dewan’s plus-minus ratings on BillJamesOnline.com. He was plus-22 a year ago, which means he made 22 plays above the number an average fielder would make. This season he is plus-6 – still above-average but not elite.
Using the Fangraphs.com version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a statistic that attempts to encompass offense, defense and baserunning, Cano has dropped from second in the majors last season at 7.8 to 24th this season at 3.9.
Some of his regression, particularly on offense, might stem from the Yankees’ struggles – Cano is seeing fewer pitches to hit and needs only one walk to match his previous career high of 61. But the Yankees likely will pounce on any perceived decline by Cano in negotiations, arguing that he does not merit say, $175 million over seven years, much less $200 million-plus over a longer term.
True, the Yankees could sign Cano to a monster contract regardless and achieve their goal of falling under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in 2014, thanks to the credit they will receive if Rodriguez is suspended without pay.
True, the Yankees rank 13th in the AL in runs and will be in even worse shape if they lose Cano, their No. 3 hitter. And true, the Yankees will need a star for their YES Network in the coming post-Rivera, post-Jeter, post-A-Rod era.
But Jay-Z could be another complicating factor.
Jay-Z once rapped, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” Roc Nation Sports is one of his newer ventures; Cano is his first client, and a rather high-profile one at that. Some rival agents believe Jay-Z wants to make a statement with Cano’s next contract.
Said one agent: “My opinion is that (Jay-Z) is very concerned with making a public display of self-promotion. So one would think that a show is coming at the player’s expense designed to play the Dodgers and Yankees against each other. I am sure they see it coming. And if you are one of those teams, do you give Cano an A-Rod deal and make him your franchise player?”
The Dodgers actually might not want to do such a thing, considering that both left-hander Clayton Kerhsaw and shortstop Hanley Ramirez are eligible for free agency after the 2014 season. Then again, the Dodgers have yet to demonstrate any financial limits and might grow even bolder if their spending leads to a World Series appearance this season.
As for the implication that Jay-Z might overreach with Cano, the possibility certainly exists. But it also might be wishful thinking by some agents, who view Jay-Z as a threat. Jay-Z recently attempted to land Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Oakland Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports. He also has contacted a number of other young players about representing them, sources say.
For now, though, Cano is Roc Nation’s centerpiece.
Jay-Z’s allegiance to the Yankees is well-documented: “I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” CAA, meanwhile, has a history of keeping players such as the Giants’ Buster Posey, Brewers’ Ryan Braun and Phillies’ Ryan Howard with their original clubs. Still, the game is awash in new TV money, raising fresh alternatives. And the Dodgers aren’t the only team that could pursue Cano.
The Tigers, Cubs, Orioles, Nationals and even the Mets also might be in the market for a second baseman, and the long-term options at the position no longer include Dustin Pedroia, who signed an eight-year extension with the Red Sox, and Chase Utley, who signed a two-year deal with the Phillies.
The question, of course, is whether Cano actually would leave the Yankees, the team that signed him as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 – and the team that still offers him the greatest marketing potential, something that obviously matters to him, given that he hired Jay-Z and CAA.
The Yankees, however, are not the familiar Evil Empire of old.
Closer Mariano Rivera is retiring. Outfielder Curtis Granderson, right-hander Hiroki Kuroda and left-hander Andy Pettitte are potential free agents. Teixeira, Rodriguez, left-hander CC Sabathia and shortstop Derek Jeter no longer perform to the level of their salaries. The team’s farm system offers little short-term help, and the free-agent market is increasingly short on solutions.
Does Cano want to be part of a down cycle that could last several years? Do the Yankees want to pay him huge dollars into his late 30s?
The answers no longer are a given.
The assumption that Cano will remain in pinstripes no longer holds.