Can the Seattle Mariners get full value out of Robinson Cano?

When the Seattle Mariners signed Robinson Cano to a 10 year, $240 million deal prior to the 2014 season, there were a lot of questions about Cano’s ability to live up to the value. After he posted lows in BA OBP, and SLG in 2015, the future looked pretty bleak. How does the deal look now that he has rebounded in 2016?

Robinson Cano’s first season in Seattle was also stellar – he hit .314/.382/.454 with a 142 OPS+ and placed in the top five of the AL MVP voting for the fourth time, but when his slash fell to .287/.334/.446 slash with a 117 OPS+ in 2015, alarm bells were set off. 32-year-old middle infielders don’t tend to rebound easily, so it looked like the Mariners were going to be stuck paying a huge contract and only getting one superstar level season.

The only saving grace was Cano’s second half rebound. Cano held a .660 OPS at the All-Star break last year, but exploded afterwards going .331/.387/.540 the rest of the way. He has now followed that up by hitting .298/.350/.521 with a 135 OPS+ this season. So as it turns out, he is still very good at hitting baseballs.

The FanGraphs version of WAR and the Baseball Reference version disagree on how well that hitting ability is translating to overall value. FanGraphs has Cano’s WAR this year at 5.5 this year, 2.1 last year, and 5.2 in 2014. Baseball-Reference, meanwhile, has him at 6.9 WAR this year, 3.4 last year, and 6.4 two years ago.

That’s a fairly wide range, but one thing is true regardless of which version you use: Cano is still an elite performer. The only question is how much longer he will be able to play at this level.

According to ZiPS, Cano’s closest comparable player coming into this season was Charlie Gehringer, a Hall of Famer who played 19 years for the Tigers from 1924-1942. From ages 34-39, Gehringer’s final six seasons in baseball, he hit .309/.421/.461 with a 120 OPS+. He won the batting title and MVP at age 34.

Those are very impressive numbers. If Cano hits like that, not only will his current deal be worth it for Seattle, but they might even consider extending him again once it’s done. However, Gehringer is the exception, not the rule. Most ballplayers aren’t so lucky in their later years.

Players like Chase Utley and Nomar Garciaparra – who are both decent comps for Cano according to Baseball-Reference’s similarity scores – fell apart quickly as they aged. Avoiding injuries gets harder and harder as a player gets older and those bumps take their toll in the long run.

If you’re the Mariners, you have to be thinking that one more superstar level year saves this deal – which is amazing, considering how bleak it looked at this time last year. If the M’s get four years of elite Robinson Cano followed by six years of average to below average production, they probably get their $240 million worth. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.

Equating WAR to actual dollar values is tricky, but a general estimate for either the FanGraphs or baseball-reference models is in the range of $7.5 million to $8 million, depending on who is doing the math. I’m going to use $8 million per each win as my baseline.

I mentioned that the two WAR models disagree on Cano. FanGraphs totals him out to 12.8 WAR over the past three years and baseball-reference puts him at 16.7. I’m going to use both values, but use whichever you prefer to draw your own conclusions.

At $8 million per win, Cano has been worth a total of $102.4 million according to FanGraphs and $133.6 million per baseball-reference. He has been paid $72 million on his contract thus far, so he’s out performed his salary given either method. That’s par for the course on free agent deals like these – the team underpays for the first few years and then overpays over the final few years. The team just hopes that it evens out.

The total contract is worth $240 million, so by FanGraphs Cano needs to be worth $137.6 million over the next seven years. That comes out to 17.2 WAR, or 2.45 WAR per year. Under the BR model, he needs to be worth about $106.4 over 7 years, which is 13.3 WAR or 1.9 WAR per year for the remainder of the deal.

The Baseball Reference model paints a much rosier picture for Cano and the M’s, and appears to be very doable. There is a fairly good chance that Cano puts up 1.9 WAR over the remaining years of the deal, or at least comes close enough as to make it a wash. The 2.4 wins per season, per FanGraphs’ model, is a little trickier but still doable.

The real key to all this is next season. If Cano can put up just one more 5+ WAR season, Seattle will almost certainly reach the break-even point over the life of the deal, unless Cano just stops playing or drops below replacement level. Seattle could move him off of second base and put him at first or at DH in his later years, and while that would hurt his overall value, it wouldn’t drive it down so far as to make him worthless.

Adding one more five-WAR season to either model would mean that Cano would need only two-WAR per year over his final six seasons via FanGraphs, or 1.4 per year via Baseball Reference – both very doable totals.

One problem still remains, though: Will Seattle have any playoff appearances to show for this deal? They currently sit two-games out of a wild card spot with only six games to play. If they don’t make the playoffs during the first four or so years of this deal–when Cano is still producing at or near MVP levels–it is going to seem like a waste regardless.

 

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