Should the Yankees Make Robinson Cano Baseball's First $300 Million Player?
The New York Yankees 2013 season reaches a merciful conclusion today in Houston. The team comes into the day with 84 wins, which for an average franchise would be considered a successful season. However, with 17 playoff appearances in the past 19 seasons, 27 world series, and a $225 million-plus payroll, anything less than 90-plus wins and a late October run is seen as a failure for the Yankees.
Yet, as much as the Yankees would like to forget this season and look forward to the future, this week was a cold reminder that next season has plenty of unknowns. Robinson Cano, far and away the best Yankees player this year, is a free agent this off-season and is reportedly seeking a 10-year contract that would pay him $305 million. That's a figure well beyond what the Yankees are prepared to offer. Can the Yankees afford to let Robinson Cano sign with another team?
Old men, big contracts
The most glaring reason the Yankees under-performed this year is a roster bloated with aging players frequently on long-term contracts. Between Alex Rodriguez (age 38), Derek Jeter (39), Kevin Youkilis (34), and Mark Texiera (33), the Yankees paid $82 million for a group of players that entering today had played just 104 games.
To put $82 million in perspective, if we created a new baseball team out of those four players (the New York Geriatrics?), they would rank as the 21st highest payroll in baseball, just edging out the entire Minnesota Twins payroll. The Yankees contracts add up to roughly $228 million this year, according to Baseball Prospectus -- remove the payroll of those four players and the Yankees payroll suddenly is "only" the fifth highest in baseball. Right above the Los Angeles Angels, the San Francisco Giants, and the Toronto Blue Jays. All three of those teams will finish the season below .500 and miss the playoffs as well. The key point here, a few bad contracts can easily take away the Yankees' ability to outspend other teams.
10-Year contracts don't have a pretty history
Robinson Cano is a unique player. He's a dynamite offensive player at a position --- second base -- not known for producing power hitters. If he can stay healthy and play late into his career, he'll likely be the best offensive second baseman since Rogers Hornsby all the way back in the 1920s. Not only that, but he's a marketable player for the Yankees. Unlike other big contracts on the team like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texiera, he's a lifetime Yankee. With the sun setting on Derek Jeter's career, Cano can become that next quintessential lifetime Yankee.
The biggest problem isn't Cano's lifetime batting average or marketability, instead the problem with Cano's contract is that it risks keeping him on well beyond his prime. The Yankees are keenly aware of the risks signing players in their 30s to long-term contracts, having recently made that mistake with Alex Rodriguez. In 2007, the Yankees signed a 10-year deal with the slugger. At the time, Rodriguez was playing at an extremely high level; he'd just won his third MVP trophy in the previous season. However, the deal would keep him on the Yankees roster through the age of 42, an age at which non-pitchers simply don't play at a high level as aging and injuries take their toll.
Not surprisingly, Rodriguez's play has fallen off dramatically. In fact, as ESPN's Stats and Information found out, every MLB player who has signed to 10-year contracts has seen a performance fall-off after signing their contract. The latest cautionary tale is Albert Pujols, who signed with the Angels at the age of 32 and has seen the worst two seasons of his career after the contract.
Could Cano Be Different?
Cano will turn 31 next month, making him slightly younger than Pujols or A-Rod when they signed their mega-deals. However, one consideration is that second basemen don't have a long history of playing at high levels deep into their careers. Roberto Alomar, who is widely considered the best all-around second basemen of the era, saw his stats precipitously fall off at the age of 34. Likewise, Ryne Sandberg's hitting ability collapsed at the age of 34 as well.
The Yankees know the rocky history of second basemen entering the back stretch of their 30s and have reportedly offered Cano six years for $144 million. Obviously, that's an offer that leaves Cano and the team far apart. The important consideration here is that Cano bolted from super agent Scott Boras to sign with Jay-Z's new agency. Both he and his agent want to make a splash with a record contract. If the Yankees aren't willing to go 10 years, some other team will, and they'll deal with the consequences of having an aging over-the-hill star weighing down their payroll seven years from now.
The baseball luxury tax is currently set at $178 million, meaning every dollar a roster is over that amount comes with a 50% surcharge. According to USA Today, this year the Yankees will have a luxury tax bill of $29.1 million. That adds another interesting wrinkle to signing Cano. As habitual luxury tax offenders, the Yankees' total bill for Cano would be even higher because they'd also be paying taxes on top of his salary. Compare that to a potential suitor like the Tigers, who are still below the tax, or a dark-horse like the Orioles who are well below being subject to a luxury tax.
The bottom line here is that any 10-year deal with Cano will likely leave some team saddled with vastly diminishing returns for half the contract. As the Yankees found out with A-Rod this year, those "worry about that payroll later" deals eventually come back to haunt you. Don't be surprised if even the big-spender Yankees are willing to let Cano walk if another team dangles a big 10-year deal.
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A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Yankees have made 19 straight playoffs. They missed the playoffs in 2008. We've corrected the article.
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