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SmackDown: Robinson Cano vs. Jorge Cantu

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YOUNG PLAYER SMACKDOWN

Per Request, a "Smackdown" for Robinson Cano and Jorge Cantu, two young infielders from the American League East.

BACKGROUND and INTANGIBLES
Cano: Robinson Cano was signed by the New York Yankees as a free agent in 2001, out of the Dominican Republic. He hit just .230 with marginal peripherals in rookie ball that year, but emerged as a prospect in 2002 by hitting .276 with 14 homers in the South Atlantic League. The son of former major league pitcher Jose Cano, Robinson is comfortable around the game and plays with confidence. His name was mentioned in trade rumors several times in 2003 and 2004, but the Yankees held onto him. In at least one case, the other team involved in the rumor decided that Cano would not develop well defensively, but this assessment was disputed by other clubs and the Yankees themselves. He was born October 22, 1982.
Cantu: Jorge Cantu was signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a free agent in 1998, out of Mexico. He was signed for his athleticism and defensive skills; his offensive potential was unclear. Cantu debuted in the New York-Penn League in 1999 at the age of 17, very young for the competition. His track record in the minors was not impressive on the surface, but he was always one of the youngest players in his league. His speed was disappointing, but he impressed scouts with his glovework. After a weak 2002 season in Double-A, I gave up on him as a prospect. This was premature, and he started to break out in 2003. He was born January 30, 1982.
Advantage:: I rate this as even. Cano had a higher profile but Cantu wasn't totally out of place playing players 2-3 years older than he was.

PHYSICALITY and TOOLS
Cano: Cano stands 6-0, 170, bats left and throws right. His best tool is his arm. His infield range is rated as just average, at least to his left, but he positions well and can make tough plays. He can also botch routine plays when his concentration slips, but that should get better with time. Offensively, he has good bat speed and does well against fastballs. He has some vulnerability to breaking balls, and his strike zone judgment needs work, but he can make contact even against pitches he probably shouldn't swing at. His raw power is above average. He tends to hit the ball low and has some vulnerability to the double play. He runs well but was tentative on the bases last year. He makes contact against lefties but shows less power against them.
Cantu: Cantu stands 6-1, 185, bats right and throws right. His best tool is his arm. His infield range is rated as just average, and in fact has slipped considerably over where it was in the lower minors. He will make tough plays, but (like Cano) he will botch routine plays more often than he should. Although used at second base and third base last year, he may end up at first base eventually if his range continues to deteriorate. Offensively, he has developed much more power than originally anticipated. Like Cano, Cantu can hit the fastball but will sometimes flail at good breaking stuff. His plate discipline is below average but he makes contact often enough to keep his batting average up despite a very low walk rate. He hits the ball low and is vulnerable to the double play. His running speed is only average. Cantu had a reverse platoon split last year and was actually more effective against righthanders.
Advantage:: This is also close, as these two players share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They both have power and have hit for average, but they both have poor plate discipline. Neither is a gold glove candidate when it comes to range, but both of them have strong arms. Cano has better speed and that gives him a slight advantage overall in this category.

PERFORMANCE and SKILLS
Cano: Cano has hit .297/.320/.458 in his major league career entering 2006, for an OPS+ of 102. He has made progress refining his defense, and has shown improved overall "general baseball skill" (baserunning, etc.) over the last two seasons. He hit slightly better than you might expect given his minor league track record last year, but given his age this is probably natural growth.
Cantu: Cantu has hit .289/.318/.489 in his major league career entering 2006, for an OPS+ of 112. His offense was poor early in his career, but he broke out big in 2003 and has maintained that progress for two seasons now. His lack of plate discipline remains a significant flaw, but so far it has not slowed him down much.
Advantage: Cantu has hit slightly better, with virtually identical BA/OBP marks but considerably more power and a higher adjusted OPS. Both players have made progress refining their skills but both still have work to do. Overall Cantu gets a slight edge here.

PROJECTION
Cano: If Cano continues to make progress, he should be a consistent .280-.300 hitter with above average power. If he can remain at second base and hit like that, he will be valuable indeed. Similar Players according to Sim Score and PECOTA include names like Tony Lazzeri, Paul Molitor, Billy Herman, Ron Hunt, Rick Burleson, and Travis Fryman.
Cantu: If Cantu continues to make progress, he should be a .275-.295 hitter with above average and perhaps excellent power. Comparables include Danny Tartabull, Jim Ray Hart, Jim Pressley, Bobby Thomson, Ken McMullen, Don Money, and Steve Garvey.
Advantage:: Cano's comparable players are slightly better overall than Cantu's, having a better balance of offensive and defensive value, but both certainly have respectable possible outcomes. The big risk in both cases is strike zone judgment, which could drag down their hitting unless they make some adjustments.

OVERALL
Advantage:Let's see. I rate them as even in background and intangibles. I give Cano a slight edge in tools. I give Cantu a slight edge in performance to date. I give Cano a slight edge in future projection. Overall it is very close, with Cano probably having a slight edge.
What do you think? Which player would you rather have for the future?