The Seattle Mariners reportedly signed Robinson Cano as a free agent today, inking him to a 10-year contract worth $240 million. Cano has been one of the top players in baseball for the last nine years. Can he go another decade? Let's take a look at his career in context.
Cano was signed by the Yankees as a free agent in 2001, from the Dominican Republic. He made his pro debut that summer in the Gulf Coast League with modest results, hitting .230/.330/.365. The batting average was low but he showed a good batting eye with 28 walks against 27 strikeouts in 200 at-bats. He also stole 11 bases. I didn't write much about rookie ball players back then, but would likely give a similar player a Grade C "with higher potential" type rating nowadays.
Sent to Low-A Greensboro in the South Atlantic League for 2002, he hit .276/.321/.445 with 14 homers, 29 walks, and 78 strikeouts in 474 at-bats. He was a shortstop at that point, although a move to second base or the outfield was being considered. Many scouts liked him, although it wasn't unanimous, with some concern about his strike zone judgment, defense, and speed. I had him rated as a Grade C in my '03 book, which was too low even without knowing what happened in the future. Given his age (20) and the tools present, I should have given him at least a C+ and most likely a B-.
Cano opened '03 with High-A Tampa, hitting .276/.313/.377 in 90 games, followed by a .280/.341/.366 run in 46 games. He moved over to second base, but non-Yankee scouts complained about his range and some felt he would be better at third base. He was also being mentioned in trade rumors at this point. I was concerned about the drop-off in power production, but I also noted his youth and high ceiling, writing that "scouts like his swing and think he'll produce both batting average and power, though so far his production has been mediocre." I boosted him up to a Grade C+.
Returning to Double-A for 2004, he hit .301/.356/.497 in 74 games, followed by a .259/.316/.403 mark in 61 games in Triple-A. I wrote that he "made substantial progress last year, improving his plate discipline and boosting his power production," but also noted the weaker performance in Triple-A, projecting that he would need more time at that level. I also noted that non-Yankee sources continued to pan his defense, although the Yankees themselves seemed pleased enough.
I wasn't sure what kind of power he would show in the long run. "Cano hits line drives and will probably never be a huge power hitter, but if he continues to hone his plate discipline his OBP and batting average should be good. He is young enough to improves his offense quite a bit more, but it is unclear where exactly he will fit on the diamond."
I ended up rating him a Grade B- that year due to these uncertainties. He continued to be mentioned in trade rumors but as you know the Yankees held onto him. He blossomed in '05, hitting .297/.320/.458 with 14 homers in his rookie season, then followed up by hitting .342 as a sophomore.
Cano is one guy I was wrong about. I thought he could be a solid player, and as noted I thought his batting average and OBP would be good. But I didn't expect him to develop into a guy who would hit 25 or more homers five years in a row, hit more than 40 doubles in seven seasons, hit .309/.355/.504 over nine seasons, make five All-Star teams, win two Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger awards, and be in the MVP conversation every year.
So what about the future?
Looking at Robinson Cano's Most Similar Players by Sim Score through age 30, we find that he compares to the following players at the same stage in their careers:
That's some really good company: four Hall of Famers plus at least two others who were mentioned as potential Hall candidates when they were playing.
Wright is an exact contemporary so we don't know how he will pan out. Utley has been showing his age with durability problems beginning at age 31, but he's still an above-average hitter. Nomar had already been bitten by the injury bug at age 30 and had just one more good year left in him at age 32.
Torre remained a productive hitter through age 35 but was finished at 36. Despite injury problems and declining defensive value, Brett remained an excellent hitter, won a batting title at age 37 and was still dangerous enough to hit 19 homers at age 40. Doerr had very good years at 31, 32, and 33 until being forced to retire due to a back injury.
Sandberg was excellent through age 32 but declined quickly after that, retired at 35 but came back to play two additional seasons at 36 and 37, though just a shadow of his former self. Stephens, considered a potential Hall of Fame player at his peak, was excellent through age 30 but fell apart quickly with injuries and personal problems and was out of the majors at 34. Fryman was excellent at age 31 but got hurt at 32 and was out of the majors two years later. Lazzeri was solid through age 32 but declined rapidly from that point and was out of the majors by 35.
So, what does all of that mean? I'm not sure I really like the historical pattern here. The two guys on his comp list who lasted longest, Torre and Brett, weren't second basemen. Wright is a third baseman and of course we don't know what will happen with him anyway. Every one of the middle infielders on this list had durability problems after age 30 and declined, often catastrophically.
Of course, this is a small sample of players and history is not destiny in any event. It does show what kind of risk the Mariners are taking with a 10-year contract for a middle infielder. My guess is that Cano will be fine for the early years of the contract, but the risk of serious failure increases dramatically past the age of 34. Of course, the decision-makers who have to worry about Cano in 2020 may not be the same ones who make the decision today.
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