Nowadays, when we talk about Robinson Cano we talk about his next contract. A $200 million deal has been widely speculated (like here and here) and that’s certainly within the realm of possibility. While it’s an interesting topic, Cano has employed Scott Boras, so I’m guessing we’ll have lots of time to cover it, as an in-season extension with the Yankees seems unlikely.

Instead, I’m more curious as to where Cano came from. If what you’re thinking starts with his mommy and daddy had some wine then no. I mean in a prospect sense. Cano emerged an All-Star from what was widely thought to be a depleted farm system. He began his minor-league career at the age of 18 in 2001. He didn’t make the majors until 2005 so he had ample time to make a few top prospects lists on the way to the Show, but he never did. Well, that’s not entirely true. He was not listed on any of the Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects lists during his time in the minors, and never ranked first overall on the annual Yankees Top 10 list, like you might expect from a future franchise player. He was ranked second once, but given the general state of the Yankees system, nobody took him too seriously.

That’s the bio we always hear about. The moral of the story is scouting is hard. Guessing at a player’s future is very difficult and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we all miss badly on a guy. I was thinking about this and how odd it is that Cano, this utterly unheralded prospect, this guy who the Yankees essentially traded as a throw-in*, has come to represent the future of the franchise.

*We can add two major league franchises to the list of those that underestimated Cano. In February of 2004 the Yankees stole Alex Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers. In return for the best player in baseball at the time Texas received Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later. The player to be named later came from a list of five players the Yankees submitted to Texas. According to Baseball America, that list featured outfielder Rudy Guillen, shortstop Joaquin Arias, Robinson Cano, and pitcher Ramon Ramirez. The Rangers picked Arias. See? We weren’t the only ones to goof on Cano. The Yankees and Rangers did too.

I decided to go back into the Baseball Prospectus archives and see what we said about Cano way back when.

Cano wasn’t listed on the Baseball Prospectus Top 40 Prospects in either 2002 or 2003. The first mention of Cano that I can find comes in an article dated July 11, 2003 by David Cameron. The article was a preview of the MLB Futures game that was to be played later that week and it lays out an argument for watching the game and then places the players into four categories by talent. Cano pops up under the last category, titled “The Fringe Prospects.” At the time Cano was coming off a .276/.321/.445 showing in Single-A as a 19-year-old and in the midst of a season that would see him post a sub-.700 OPS split between High-A and Double-A. Cano isn’t mentioned in the short bit of explanatory text that follows (they are fringe prospects, after all) but Cameron did note something interesting when he wrote, “History tells us that one of these [fringe prospects] is going to make me look foolish in 15 years…” So he got that part right, though maybe a bit more quickly than he guessed.

In July 2004, Cano was either just finishing up his time in Double-A Trenton or just beginning with Triple-A Columbus. I can’t find an exact date and Cano won’t give specifics either. On July 21, Dayn Perry wrote an article here at BP that gave his preferred five Yankee prospects in preparation for the up-and-coming trade deadline. Cano wasn’t on the list but he was mentioned. In the second or third paragraph, depending on how you count these things, Perry referred to Cano, saying he “smacks long and hard of pinstriped fool's gold.” Perry then went on to refer to the trading of Cano as similar to “kicking a cadaver in the groin.” Click the link if you want to try to figure the rest of that one out.

Even as a 21-year-old in Triple-A on the strength of a rather strong showing in Double-A, Cano wasn’t being taken seriously as a prospect. We at BP weren’t doing much scouting back in those days so finding specifics as to what we didn’t like about Cano amounts to guessing, but I’m not above that. Two specific aspects of Cano’s game were objectionable: his lack of patience, and his lack of power. In that rush to condemn the player for what he lacked, we missed what he was good at, and that he was getting better even as his level of competition increased. Cano is a great hitter because he hits for average and power. Cano’s two best minor league seasons by slugging percentage were his last two. His best came in Triple-A as a 22-year-old when he slugged .574 and was brought up to the majors. His second best came the season before that when he slugged .457 between Double-A and Triple-A.

What is surprising to me at least is that Cano looks like the prototypical toolsy player. He’s tall, strong, has a good strong arm, is athletic, and he has a quick bat that generates good power. So you’d expect a high ceiling if he were to develop those skills but you never read about it. Not here at BP, but not at other outlets either. Now, maybe he developed that arm, athleticism, and bat speed at the major-league level or as he got closer. In other words maybe those skills weren’t there to begin with, but that seems doubtful. The more likely answer is that we just didn’t see past the things he didn’t do well (field the ball, take a walk) to the things he did do well (make solid contact).

One aspect I’ve noticed recently, in the past five or so years, in the baseball analysis community is our ability and willingness to incorporate new lessons and take in new information, even if that information comes from somewhere other than a statistic. BP had many strengths back in its early days but I’m not sure that was one of them. Now it is.

I’ll finish this up by noting a piece that was published here at BP in February of 2006. In it, Nate Silver gave PECOTA’s take on the best prospects of the day. He lists Cano under “Almost Prospects” which I believe is a reference to the fact that those players were no longer in the minor leagues. Here’s what PECOTA and Silver had to say about Cano at the time:

There was a thread on Baseball Think Factory a little while ago about Robinson Cano; the claim was made that Cano has a 10% chance to make the Hall of Fame. Although PECOTA is not particularly high on Cano, I suspect that claim is about right. The number of players who make for decent major-league regulars at 22 is small, and having access to major-league resources–the best coaching and training, the competitive and financial incentives, the presence of veterans in the clubhouse–is an enormous plus for a developing baseball player.

This is a significant statement in a couple ways. First off, it’s true. Secondly, I’m not sure it’s one you would have found in the electronic pages of BP five years previous. It shows an understanding of player aging, of skill development, and acknowledges that young players get better, sometimes substantially, if they have the tools to do so. That, in a nutshell, is the moral of Robinson Cano and it’s one that more baseball analysts than just us got wrong. I can’t speak for any of them, but I feel comfortable saying that were a player like Cano to come along again, we’d do a much better job of assessing his strengths and figuring out where they might take him. Oh, sure, we might be wrong about him—prospects are hard, after all—but we’ll do a better job at being wrong. That’s progress and it’s something to be proud of.