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October 5, 2011
Growing into Stardom
Robinson Cano has unquestionably turned into a superstar, leading all second baseman in VORP in each of the last three years while putting together seasons of 331, 334, and 332 total bases. Cano’s narrative has changed as well; with a Home Run Derby title and recent post-season accomplishments, he's no longer another part of the Yankees machine—he is seen by many as the most dangerous player in their lineup.
While the second baseman hasn't been a prospect for six years, a reader recently asked what kind of prospect Cano was coming up. The short answer: not much of one. He was on plenty of Yankees prospect lists during his career, but rarely at or toward the top until he hit the big leagues in 2005. While there are always surprises in scouting and player development, most elite big-league players are seen as having that potential as prospects. That was never the case with Cano. He was almost included as an extra player in trades with the Royals, Diamondbacks, and Rangers, with the latter being the most glaring; Texas chose Joaquin Arias over Cano in the Alex Rodriguez deal. That's an embarrassing maneuver now, but at the time, most in the industry saw it as the right call. Nobody saw Cano turning into the offensive monster he is today.
While international signing bonuses have skyrocketed of late, when Cano signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 for a mere $100,000, it wasn't exactly the kind of bonus that gets a hype train rolling. “He wasn't the highest profile player by any stretch of the imagination,” said Mark Newman, a senior vice president with the Yankees who leads their player development staff. “He was a shortstop, but he couldn't run, he was even a 40 back then, so there was just nothing flashy about him. But we liked his bat, especially his hands, and so he had the one tool that trumps all others.”
Cano's career did not start off well performance-wise, as he hit .230 in the Gulf Coast League. He did gain some notice in his full-season debut, as he hit .276/.321/.445 for Low-A Greensboro in 2002. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but they’re solid for a 19-year-old in the Sally League. His stock dipped a bit. Splitting time between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, Cano hit a fairly empty .277/.322/.374 in 2003, but began to garner a scouting reputation as a future big leaguer—not a star. “The swing was a thing of beauty,” said a National League scout who evaluated Cano during his minor-league career, “but at some point you want to see results. At the time, he didn't have much power, didn't have much projection, and it wasn't even a sure thing that he would be able to stay at second base.”
“The industry didn't believe in him,” added Newman. “And to be fair, we didn't exactly have guys jumping up and down around here saying this guy is going to be one of the best hitters in baseball.”
Cano raised his stock considerably in 2004. He began the year in Double-A, and hit .301/.356/.497 in 74 games for Trenton before moving up to Triple-A. Both Yankees officials and scouts noted the improvement in his game, with Newman explaining that the improvements were incremental throughout his career. “When Cano was young, he swung at almost everything,” explained Newman. “That was because he could hit everything, but over time, he's really improved in that area. He'll never be a player with an even average walk rate, but he definitely swings at better pitches.”
With those better pitches came opposite-field power, an ability that often separates the good hitters from the great ones. “Over time, he learned how to hit the ball the other way,” Newman said, “and to stay true and drive balls into the opposite gap, that's just huge.”
“He just became stronger, and more physical,” added the scout. “And with that strength came more bat speed.”
With all of the development on the field, both Newman and the scout say makeup put Cano over the top. “I'd love to point to some obvious change in his swing or approach, but when you ask me how he turning into the player today, it's just hard work,” said the scout.
“He loves to play, and he loves to practice,” added Newman, who also credited Cano’s demeanor.
“It could be his background, as his father played in the big leagues,” Newman explained. “But he [Cano] plays so relaxed. From the Gulf Coast League to the World Series, if he's ever been nervous, I can't tell when it was.”
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .