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December 6, 2013

Transaction Analysis

A Need Cano Basis

by Sam Miller and Bret Sayre

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SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Reportedly agreed to a 10-year, $240 million deal with 2B-L Robinson Cano [12/6]

Let’s get the part out of the way where I pretend to know something that’s totally unknowablethe future:

That’s about 36 wins, for $240 million, $6.7 million per win. Among the many, many things that can’t be known with much certainty: What the rate of inflation will be, how good Cano will actually be this year, how good Cano will actually be in 10 years, how healthy he is, how healthy his teammates are, what the Mariners’ needs will be, whether the Mariners will be good, who will own them, who will run them, how their park will play, how competitive their division will be, how their next half-dozen first-round picks will develop, whether Macklemore will have no more hits or two dozen. Ten years ago Mark Prior was the most valuable property in major-league baseball, and Robinson Cano was in the minors, where he was never considered bright enough to make a top 100 prospects ranking.

But $6.7 million per year; let’s assume something like that, so we can agree that this isn’t the overpay our sticker-shocked brains instinctively make it out to be. Robinson Cano is somewhere between the second and fourth best player in baseball, and he just signed for (adjusted for baseball inflation) what Mike Hampton got in 2000. Salaries go up.

So now we can talk about the Mariners.

***

In Ben’s review of the Jacoby Ellsbury signing, he argues that it’s wrong to use the typical $/win measures to assess the Yankees. This is fair in one sense, but not the way I figured it.

Imagine you’re a GM who wakes up the day after the World Series with $5 million to spend, for the whole winter. You could almost certainly spend that $5 million very efficiently, waiting for just the right move and just the right undervalued player who is in just the right situation that gets you just the right below-market signing. Actually, screw it, let’s switch from a hypothetical to a straight-up analogy:

If you walk into the Strand to buy one book, you’re going to end up with a book you absolutely love. Your average Love Per Book Purchase is maxed the ef out. Or else you’re a dope.

But if you go into the Strand to buy two books, you’re going to get one you absolutely love, and another one you love (by rule) slightly less. Your Average Love Per Book Purchase is (by rule) slightly less than maxed the ef out, because you just bought a second-best book. Three books: Absolutely love, slightly less, and slightly less. If you go into the Strand to buy 700 books, the 700th one is going to dramatically lower your average, but that doesn’t mean you don’t also want it. Books are great!

So go back to the hypothetical. The Yankees buy 700 books, and it makes it very hard for us to measure these 700 moves on the same scale that we would measure the Rays' moves. It's not they they can afford to overpay because they have more money; after all, we've seen just this very morning that the Yankees reach their limit, just like everybody else, and are therefore vulnerable to the same cost-per-win pressures that 29 other teams are. But, yes, every dollar they spend will produce slightly diminished returns, on a dollar-per-win basis. That's a far cry from saying that the dollars are spent poorly. That’s where Ben’s argument makes sense, and that’s why I don’t cry for the Yankees.

The Mariners are not a team that buys 700 books, but there is more than one analogy by which to oversimplify a baseball team. What, exactly, are the Mariners?

***

In 2008, the Mariners’ team payroll was $118 million, which was the ninth highest in baseball. (A year before that they were seventh highest.)

Then it dropped to $98 million, then $87 million for two seasons, then $82 million. Last year, they might have been as low as 24th in baseball, at just $72 million.

Teams that have the 24th-highest payroll in baseball can’t afford to spend this much on a free agent, but the Mariners have no business being the 24th-highest payroll in baseball. When they were winning, a decade ago, they drew 3.5 million fans in a season. Over an eight-year period, the Mariners led all of baseball in TV ratings every year. They’re a mid-market team with an upmarket population and an enviable fanbase. Even if we think that $118 million figure was a blip, it’s probably conservative to say they were capable of carrying a $100 million payroll comfortably, and with four percent inflation that would put them around $127 million this year. The Mariners presumably have a lot more money to spend than, say, the Reds or the Padres or the Royals.

With two caveats: One is that they have to win. Attendance is half of what it was a decade ago. They’ve finished in last place seven of the past 10 years, and dropped from the highest attendance in the AL to 11th. Ratings are presumably down, and the Mariners own their regional sports network now, so that quite possibly actually matters to them. Anything that makes the Mariners better will make them more money, and to the extent that Cano could do that or could (in an albatross situation) do the opposite of that, he is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If he’s good, the Mariners can afford him. If he’s bad, they can’t. Spend money well to make money.

The other caveat is that they’ve had a very hard time spending money. In recent years they’ve tried to give too much money to Josh Hamilton and failed, to Prince Fielder and failed, to Mike Napoli and failed. They traded for Justin Upton and he invoked a no-trade clause. Giving away money turns out to be not simply a matter of will. The Mariners suck at it.

So let’s put those two things together, and you see how the Not Measuring Teams On a Strict $/WAR Mindset applies in the other direction, too. Some teams don’t qualify because they have such an easy time spending. And some, like the Mariners (and an increasing number of other teams), don’t qualify because they have such a difficult time spending. They’re in a book store with one book. And they got to get their read on.

***

Now to the question of whether this makes them win. As we've agreed, Cano will produce wins, but are they the right wins at the right time?

The Mariners aren’t where we’d like to see a team be when they make that push for 90. They won 71 games last year, and while some team will improve by 20 games this year, it’s probably not going to be yours. (And it’s probably not going to be the team that overperformed Pythagoras.)

But when is the Mariners’ window? It seems reasonable to say 2015, certainly 2016, and frankly if you can’t say 2015 or 2016 just shut the whole thing down; there’s very, very rarely a situation where a GM shouldn’t consider three years away to be a competitive window. The Mariners have an elite farm system, a young lineup that has made strides, the second-best pitcher in franchise history approaching 30, and money to spend. They have essentially no money committed beyond 2014, other than to Felix Hernandez. So maybe not 2014—almost definitely not 2014—but certainly 2015.

So should the Mariners have waited a year to make a move like this? That doesn’t seem to be where the league is going. Consider the Cubs’ signing of Edwin Jackson last year, a different kind of signing but relevant. The Cubs weren’t competitive; they weren’t even, like the Mariners seem to be, deluding themselves into thinking they’re competitive. But they signed Jackson for four years knowing that, when they were competitive, they would need pitchers, and pitchers aren’t easy to get on demand. (Note that we don't actually know what the Cubs' mindset was, and that the math is always complex.) The Twins signing Phil Hughes seems to be explicitly a move for 2015 and 2016, with the 2014 year being the sacrifice the Twins had to make. The A’s signing Yoenis Cespedes for four years before 2012 when, if we take them at their word, they didn’t consider themselves yet competitive.

The best analogy, on a smaller scale, might be the Angels’ trade for Dan Haren in 2010. The Angels had virtually no chance of winning the division that year. But Haren was signed for three more, so acquiring him at the wrong time acquired him for the right time. They did what amounted to free agent shopping when the buying was good. (Note that trading for David Price, with only two seasons of club control left, makes much less sense under this rationale.)

We’ve long treated these big contracts as front-loaded value, where a team gets some good years for a good rate but know they have to write off the last couple years. In a league where nobody hits free agency anymore and everybody’s a buyer, teams like the Mariners might simply have to write off the first year, too. It’s too risky to wait until you’re at 86 wins to go shopping for the player who’ll push you to 91.

***

Finally, there’s the downside: Cano will eventually be bad, and too expensive, and the Mariners are not a team like the Yankees that can afford to carry terrible contracts. But if we vastly overestimate the value of these eight-figure free agents, we also probably underestimate the ease of moving them.

Remember: Nobody good hits free agency, everybody’s buying all the time, and the league is in a TV bubble that may or may not pop but will, in the meantime, infuse ever more cash into the game. In this league, the Red Sox couldn’t just get out of an absuuuuurdly bad Carl Crawford deal (and an arguably bad Adrian Gonzalez deal, and Josh Beckett deal); they got prospects back. The Tigers sign Prince Fielder to a Cano-sized deal that looks (to me) far, far worse than this one, Fielder declines practically immediately, and two years later they trade him for a better, cheaper player. Vernon Wells’ entire contract (basically) got traded. For value. Results may vary, but that trade will never stop having happened.

There are ways this goes terribly for Seattle. That’s the game. You take a chance. If the chance gets you a Hall of Famer and MVP candidate who has shown absolutely no decline, no physical problems, and the first five years of his deal line up with your team’s ideal competitive window, then you take it. You take it, and you pray. —Sam Miller

Fantasy

Robinson Cano

We know what happens in fantasy circles when a hitter moves to Seattle—it's not that different from when a pitcher moves to Denver—but this move for Cano will suppress his value a bit and potentially even make him slightly underrated. He was sneaking in as a top-five pick in recent years, but the knee-jerk reaction is to take him out of the top-20 entirely. Don't be that person. That person will scare you with numbers like telling you that he's not even going to hit 20 homers in Safeco, but we know that the park (while still below-average), is not nearly as deflating to lefties as it is to righties. That person may also tell you that his counting stats will fall off a cliff, and that the no. 3 spot in the Mariners' lineup (where Cano is likely to reside) accumulated only 68 runs and 69 RBI in 2013. Then again, that ragtag bunch combined to hit .229/.312/.384—a far cry from Cano's five-year average of .314/.369/.530. A drop in fantasy value is to be expected, but this is still a likely. 300 hitter with 20-25 homers and strong counting stats who will be the top producer at his position. That's a viable first-rounder in all but the shallowest of leagues.

Nick Franklin

This may be the first time I've ever put an arrow up next to a player who was just completely blocked by a signing, but I don't expect Franklin to remain blocked for very long. Franklin is not strong enough defensively to overtake Brad Miller for the shortstop job or offensively to overtake Kyle Seager for the third base job, so as a utility player in a brutal home park for his skill set, his value would deflate faster than a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon in a machete factory. With the Mariners looking to deal (and potentially aiming very high), he could be on the move in short order—and his outlook would go up as a result, even if he relocates to a team that plays in an offensively depressed home park like Tampa Bay.

Kelly Johnson

The biggest winner of this transaction, however, is another left-handed hitter who's now looking at a whole lot of at-bats in New York (even more so than when he signed earlier this week). Johnson is not a pure pull hitter, which will reduce his new home park's effect slightly, but if he can pick up 450 at-bats (which seems more likely with Cano gone), he could be a 20-plus homer, 10-steal middle infielder. Even with an average south of .250, that's a nice proposition, even before taking into account his additional eligibility at 3B and OF. I'd be drafting Johnson among the top 15 second basemen if the offseason ended today. —Bret Sayre

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here
Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

29 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

hyprvypr

There's the hidden value of returning to legitimacy. The M's have been a disaster of a franchise for the last 3-4 years and it really peaked this off-season with the Wedge fiasco, the retirement of Chuck Armstrong and another bad season with marginally poor growth from their glut of rookies. Free agents haven't wanted to come to Seattle. It rains a lot. It's a long plane ride from *anywhere*. There's no superstar talent there...

Or, so it has been. The signing of Cano gives the city some temporary shine, the little luster they need to lure other free agents. Guys like Nelson Cruz don't want to come to the Mariners of a month ago. They'll come more readily when they are sandwiched between Cano and Napoli.

The M's have piles of money to spend. If they do, they should return to competitiveness. Maybe not in 2014, but surely in a few years. Cano should enjoy this resurgence at some point as well as one of the most rabid sport fan bases on the planet when their teams are winning. There is not a better, more enthusiastic crowd of sports fans than Seattle when their teams are winning.

Dec 06, 2013 11:59 AM
rating: 0
 
mikebuetow

"Guys like Nelson Cruz don't want to come to the Mariners of a month ago. They'll come more readily when they are sandwiched between Cano and Napoli."

That would be an interesting study. Seems to me most (as in almost all) free agents go to the highest bidder. (Which, given the potential budget constraints, the Mariners won't typically be.)

How many top tier free agents signed with San Francisco in 1997-2002 when Bonds and Kent were back to back in the order? The only one I can think of is Ellis Burks, and he was 33 and two years removed from his second (and last) All-Star game.

Dec 06, 2013 13:02 PM
rating: 1
 
gpurcell

Didn't the Mariners offer Ellsbury more money/years than the Yankees?

Dec 06, 2013 13:20 PM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

What I'm suggesting is that hitters DIDN'T want to come to Seattle before Cano, and now they'll be more apt to come, knowing their it is more than just them against the world.

Dec 08, 2013 11:26 AM
rating: 0
 
mikebuetow

Perhaps. But then again, it might be like 2005, when they had Edgar Martinez, Ichiro, Bret Boone and Richie Sexson, which coupled with $64 million was enough to land Adrian Beltre, but even with the emergence the following year of King Felix, the only notable hitter they signed post-Beltre was Jose Guillen.

Dec 09, 2013 10:15 AM
rating: 0
 
SaxonB

Will Macklemore become the Jay-Z of Seattle, buy the city a basketball franchise and then become Robinson Cano's agent when he comes a free agent in 20?? t the age of 4?

We just don't know.

Dec 06, 2013 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

If my team has piles of money to spend I want it to spend it on Cano. He's worth more than $30 million a year now -- 2b power, gold glove - MVP perennial - durability - for 3 years at that level - he's worth a third of the contract already. In the last 3 years he'll be an overpaid DH, sure, but he'll still hit, and who knows what kind of an overpay $24 million will be in 2023?

Sure, the rate of inflation won't match his rate of decline, but if basing this on the premise that your team has got $, then you've got spend it on the best, and that's what Cano is right now.

As a Met fan I hate when my team overspends, cause we almost always screw it up. But I asked myself last night, if the Mets swooped in and Minaya'd this one with a $250 million / 10 year offer would I regret it? Absolutely not.

Imagine Joey Votto as a gold glove 2b. You're telling me that's not worth it?

Dec 06, 2013 12:50 PM
rating: 1
 
rweiler

Votto has been a considerably better hitter than Cano over the years. It is the ability to play 2nd and hit better than the average 1st baseman that makes Cano more valuable.

Dec 06, 2013 13:35 PM
rating: 1
 
Robotey

good point - I think mean better than the average 2nd baseman, though, no? And just how much a hitter has Votto been than Cano?

Dec 06, 2013 18:27 PM
rating: 0
 
Justice

So, let me get this straight. The Yankees just signed Brian McCann (5 years, $85 million) and Jacoby Ellsbury (7 years, $153 million). And the Yankees just lost Robinson Cano (10 years, $240 million) and Curtis Granderson (4 years, $60 million). The money does not exactly match, as the Yankees paid about $60 million less for 12 years of McCann/Ellsbury than the Mariners and Mets paid for 14 years of Cano/Granderson, but the yearly average is pretty close (21.5 million per year for the departing players and 19.8 million per year for the players coming in).

So, let's take the money out of it: the Yankees just essentially traded Cano and Granderson for McCann and Ellsbury.

That is a terrible deal.

Dec 06, 2013 13:01 PM
rating: 0
 
jeremydneezy

But the offseason isn't over yet.

Dec 06, 2013 13:15 PM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Justice, I agree. This series of signings, other than McCann, make no sense relative to one another whatsoever.

McCann was needed to fill the sinkhole at C no doubt.

I'd much rather have Granderson's contract than Ellsbury's, especially with Gardner around to provide many of the skills of Ellsbury.

And if I was going to overpay, I'd rather do it for Cano than Ellsbury. As soon as the Yank's threw $153 mil to Ellsbury there was no way Cano would sign for $ 175.

Without the Ellsbury pinstripe reference point, Cano may have had less reason to view $ 200 mil as an insult and more reason to return to the Bronx.

I just think that Ellsbury is the worst player in this group for Yankee stadium and the one I'd least like to throw any money at.

Dec 06, 2013 15:13 PM
rating: 2
 
DetroitDale

I love your analysis but disagree with the ultimate conclusion. As was pointed out elsewhwhere, cano's value is he hits like a first baseman and plays second base. You could make the same case for McCann at catcher. (McCann isn't the hitter cano is but compare him to catchers and cano to 2bmen and the margins are similar) Ellsbury doesn't have Brandy's power, but hes better defensively running bases and making contact. I make this "trade" as a wash or a slight net positive for the yanks

Dec 07, 2013 12:40 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

I have to strongly disagree with you, my fine fellow Tigers follower. By my estimates anyway, Cano figured OPS around .880 if he stayed in Yankee Stadium Nouveau - and that's with a good .350 OBP. The marginal second-baseman - let's pick a good one for argument sake - Kelly Johnson is expected to be a .700 OPSer - only .310 OPS. Compare that to McCann's expected OPS of .780 to, say, Francesco Cervelli of .650 expectations, Cano wins by .050 OPS. It is more than that considering Cano plays every day, while catchers can't. Compare these marginal contributions defensively the gap between Cano's value and McCann's widens significantly further.

Dec 07, 2013 13:17 PM
rating: 2
 
stewbies

$60 million is a lot to take "out of it". $5m a year gets a solid reliever like Benoit or Balfour. They already got K. Johnson to play 2b and McCann is huge upgrade over Stewart/Cervelli. I'm not a yankee fan, but I think I'd take Ellsbury, McCann, Benoit and KJ over Cano, Grandy, Stewart and a no name middle reliever.

Dec 06, 2013 13:15 PM
rating: 3
 
Justice

But, you know, the best player in that hypothetical deal is still Robinson Cano. There is a rule of trades that always made sense to me: the team that gets the best player in the deal is usually the team that wins the deal.

Dec 06, 2013 13:34 PM
rating: -1
 
Behemoth

I prefer the idea of actually putting the work in to evaluate trades. I think it tends to give better results.

Dec 09, 2013 05:04 AM
rating: 2
 
Justice

Trades should be evaluated as a whole, of course. But in trades of quality for quantity, quality usually wins.

Dec 12, 2013 22:34 PM
rating: 0
 
apilgrim

I love this signing. The Mariners don't have any player in their system that can hit like Cano. They haven't developed one in 10-something years.

If they drafted or international signed "that guy", it would take him 6-7 years to be close to what Cano is. And thats a long shot. On top of that, the Mariner's tend to draft and sign pitchers well and struggle developing impact bats, so this signing makes sense to me.

Dec 06, 2013 14:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Zeustis316

Great article. Fascinating to read about teams signing free agents a year or two prior to their competitive window fully opening.

Dec 06, 2013 17:05 PM
rating: 0
 
grandslam28

Over an eight-year period, the Mariners led all of baseball in TV ratings every year

This is very misleading isn't it? Didn't they have this because of Ichiro & all the people watching Seattle from Japan?

Dec 06, 2013 19:27 PM
rating: 1
 
DetroitDale

Scuttlebutt on the internet is next move is Omar infante to replace cano, but isn't that basically what Kelly Johnson is for?

Dec 07, 2013 12:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

No, I think Kelly Johnson was signed to stand in for whichever old baseball player happens to be broken on any particular day. You wouldn't really want him as the starting second baseman on a contender, but he works well as an active utility player.

Dec 09, 2013 05:03 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

It is time to assess Robinson Cano's place among the all-time greatest Yankee second-basemen. Even though he has cut his time with them short, he has a good case to be ranked no. 1. Only Tony Lazzeri and Willie Randolf accumulated more WAR (using B-Ref.) during their careers as Yankees, but they took more years to top what Cano produced so far. Cano's 9 year career WAR is 45.2.

Lazzeri's best consecutive 9 years comes to 41.1, but played three more years to come in at 48.3.

Randolf covered the keystone for 13 years, but his best consecutive nine comes to 39.0. However, he was impactful for those additional four seasons bringing his career Yankees total to 53.8. Arguably, Randolf should still be considered no. 1.

Another candidate is Joe Gordon. In his first six years as a Yankee second-baseman, he accumulated 35.6 WAR. At age 29 and 30, he took two years off to fight in WW II. Project what he would have done those two years and add it to what he did the year he returned, he might be ahead of Cano. Gordon continued as a 5.0 WAR/year his next two years in Cleveland.

Gil McDougald was another outstanding Yankee second baseman, but comes in 5th place. He was more of a Tony Phillips type utility star.

If you consider that today's Major Leaguers are obviously bigger, faster, stronger, and better trained than the pros of the past, then Cano is obviously the best ever.

Here are the rest of the multi-year Yankee second-basemen chronologically (with some overlap due to war and positional switches) preceded by their WAR-f as Yankees in consecutive positive contribution:

14.1 Jimmy Williams
3.2 Frank LaPorte
1.6 Luke Boone
13.1 Del Pratt (in only 3 years)
12.6 Aaron Ward
48.3 Tony Lazzeri
37.6 Joe Gordon
25.7 Snuffy Stirnweiss (in only 5 years)
7.2 Jerry Coleman
6.3 Billy Martin
40.6 Gil McDougald
9.1 Bobby Richardson (and that took 10 years)
5.5 Horace Clarke (even worse - took 8)
2.0 Sandy Alomar (father of Sandy, Jr. and Robbie)
53.8 Willie Randolf
9.9 Steve Sax
5.0 Pat Kelly
7.4 Chuck Knoblauch
5.4 Alfonso Soriano (not counting his return to them as an outfielder)
45.2 Robinson Cano

If you want more contributions like this from me, please vote a plus.

Dec 07, 2013 14:10 PM
rating: 12
 
John Carter

P.S. In comparing these players, I almost forgot what is most critically important to Yankees :post season performance. Robinson Cano has not fared so well when you combine all of his post seasons, but he hasn’t been terrible. None of the top five greatest Yankee second-basemen outperformed their career OPS. That is not particularly surprising considering under those circumstances, they were always facing well above average opponents. The player who by far hit the best in the post season relative to league average OPS (using Michael Bain’s A Graphical History of Baseball) was Joe Gordon. However, he only played in five World Series as a Yankee. Tony Lazzeri played in six and fared just slightly worse in a stronger hitting environment. They fared significantly better than the other three. Gil McDougald played in the World Series during 8 of this 10 years with the Yankees hitting .689 OPS. Willie Randolf played in 9 post season series - three of them for the championship and hit slightly less than McDougald under a slightly tougher run scoring environment. Cano hit slightly better than Randolf during his 11 post season series of which only one was for the championship. The run scoring during his tenure was up there with Lazzeri’s as the highest. All in all the argument for Gordon being the greatest Yankee second-baseman gets bumped up even more, if you just compare these players purely against their contemporaries. Considering that his time as a Yankee was before baseball started to integrate, then you have to acknowledge his skill level probably wasn’t even close to Cano’s.

Dec 07, 2013 15:37 PM
rating: -1
 
Randy Brown
(189)

+1 for spelling Randolph like Gandalf.

Dec 07, 2013 18:12 PM
rating: 11
 
BrewersTT

He was kind of a graybeard by the time he hung them up.

Dec 09, 2013 15:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Scott
(296)

I am hoping that Dayton Moore is on the phone with Seattle finding out what Seattle needs to get to move Franklin. The Royals need a young 2B with Franklin's promise, and they should overpay a bit to get it.

Dec 07, 2013 15:14 PM
rating: 3
 
digiderek

"...but the knee-jerk reaction is to take him out of the top-20 entirely."

In what world? In what league? Seriously, how do I join that league?

Dec 07, 2013 15:48 PM
rating: -1
 
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