The Lessons of Alex Rodriguez: Re-thinking a Big Payday for Robinson Cano
Watching the Yankees the last few weeks, it feels like the primary topic of conversation has been Alex Rodriguez, and how dreadful he has looked of late. We here at YGY have discussed it at length, and the issues surrounding his slump at the plate. That said, as we all have gone into at length, A-Rod isn’t going anywhere with over $100 million dollars owed to him and five years left on the contract. More importantly, as we head into the offseason (sooner than we all would have hoped) and potential contract discussions with Robinson Cano loom large, it is important to take away the lessons that this playoff run crystallized: namely, the danger of long-term, money-heavy contracts.
To be clear, I think Robinson Cano is a phenomenal talent. With his fielding ability and arm strength, it’s easy to see how he would be accused of being lazy on defense. His offensive numbers are sparkling: over his eight year career, he has a slash line of .308/.351/.503, with an OPS of .854. He has an astonishing 4.3 WAR over the course of his career; in 2012, he had a 8.2 WAR. For comparison’s sake, the potential American League MVP, Mike Trout, had a WAR of 10.7. Cano is an exceptional player. However, Cano is also going to turn 30 years old on October 22.
When A-Rod was awarded his current 10-year deal in 2007, he was 32 years old. The parallels aren’t exactly perfect- A-Rod was coming off a career year (but, arguably, so is Cano). Alex’s career track is slightly different given the admitted use of PEDs, and the assumed effects those had on his stats, but we cannot go back and whitewash what occurred, so they must be used. From 1994-2007, Alex was a .306/.389/.578 career hitter, with an OPS of .967. Overall, in accounting for the circumstances — he probably walked a lot more due to fear about his power, and the slugging percentage is no doubt influenced by PED usage — Alex’s numbers are comparable to Cano’s numbers. Defensively, A-Rod had a WAR of 6.5, and worth 5 wins above average (WAA), versus Cano’s 2 WAA over his eight-year career. Defensive assessments are not necessarily as comparable when it must be accounted for that A-Rod did switch positions during the course of his career following his trade to the Yankees, but was a very serviceable third baseman and very solid shortstop. Based on numbers alone, it would appear that while A-Rod has an edge, under the mitigating circumstances, the two are comparable.
The decline of Alex Rodriguez is serving as a warning for the Yankees as they approach a contract extension for Robinson Cano. (Image: Tim Farrell, US Presswire)
Just a refresher here; players don’t get better or maintain a high playing ability as they get older. Derek Jeter is the exception, certainly not the norm. Players deteriorate with age- the legs slow, the bat speed slows, the power to drive the ball decreases. Effectively, players are unable to cover as much area in the field- one of the things that makes Cano so special- and power numbers decrease- another area of strength for Cano. Everything that makes him special, will deteriorate in the coming years. If players peak in performance from ages 27-32, Cano is smack in the middle of the range, but is probably closer to his skills deteriorating than continuing. To award Cano a contract worthy of a Scott Boras client would be to pay him for his past performances, which would likely not be accomplished again, for an inordinate amount of money and a significant amount of time. Does that make any sense? No.
I may take some heat for this, but I would rather let Cano walk than get involved in another contract the likes of the A-Rod deal for the Yankees. There are plenty of examples of bad contracts — Carl Crawford, Albert Pujols, and Jayson Werth– that go beyond just the A-Rod deal. It is not in the best interest of the team to carry an aging player who cannot contribute at the necessary level required to justify such a payday. It is compounded by the fact that, when the player inevitably reaches the point of not being able to contribute at the highest levels, the contract size would be a hindrance to move him, or else would require the team to eat a huge amount of money in a trade. It simply doesn’t make sense. In a perfect world, I would rather have teams operate like Andrew Friedman of the Tampa Bay Rays — lock up their players with manageable extensions in their younger years when the future still remains up in the air, making a potential trade easier, or giving the team a huge steal. Likewise, the Rays’ extension policies cover most of their players’ peak-performance years, so the team gets the most bang for its buck, and doesn’t end up paying for past performance when a player is in his declining years. Brian Cashman did do this initially with Cano- he is locked up for another year, and any move this offseason is a proactive move to prevent free agency, but that doesn’t mean it still won’t hurt in terms of contract length or size, which should make Cashman consider letting Cano walk.
It might hurt to lose Cano initially. I’m sure there was many a St. Louis Cardinals fan who bemoaned the loss of Pujols when the Cards were clamoring for a playoff spot this year. And yet somehow, the team survived. All the money that would have been invested in one player can now be used to shore up other areas of need, and gives more maneuverability. I’m not under the delusion that Cano should give the Yankees a hometown discount. He would probably be foolish to even entertain any contract that doesn’t have an annual number that starts with a 2. He’s probably worth somewhere in the $22-25 million dollar range. He will also probably secure somewhere in the seven or eight year range. Bearing in mind his age, the inability to move him later on, and the financial hit it would cause, I would probably go $22 million/5 years, although admittedly, that is probably a bit of a low-ball offer that would cause Cano to get up and walk.
At the end of the day, we as fans fall in love with certain players, for reasons that are often hard to justify. However, at the end of the day, players come and go, and we are first and foremost fans of the team. It is the team that comes before any player. It is in the team’s best interest to act in such a way or to award (or not award, as it were) contracts such that do not hamstring them moving forward. The Yankees already have a prime example in front of their eyes, and it is like getting another smack across the forehead watching every Alex Rodriguez strikeout in these playoffs. Even the Yankees, with so much money tied up elsewhere, and contract commitments to aging players, simply cannot afford to be put in such a position again. I want Robinson Cano to stay, but if not offering him a contract will hurt the team causes him to walk, so be it. Because every single time you watch A-Rod strike out this postseason will be a glimpse into the future, and a warning about handing out those kinds of contracts, and the Yankees should think long and hard about their future, even if that means a future without Cano.