It's been two years since Robinson Cano was embraced by Jack (copy-paste) Zduriencik after inking the $240 million contract that keeps Cano in the land of Starbucks and salmon until 2023, a deal that united player and team for longer than the average marriage in the United States. On the surface, it looked like a substantial overpay, but the ever-durable Cano seemed to have at least a few elite years left in his 31-year-old body. Well, so far he's played out two seasons of the deal, and despite appearing in all but 11 of his team's 324 games, Mariners fans, as portrayed by Vladimir and Estragon, are still waiting for the Cano they were expecting to show up.
Act I: 2014 Baseball Season
VLADIMIR: (gloomily). It's too much for one man. (Pause. Cheerfully.) On the other hand what's the good of losing heart now, that's what I say.
Cano entered 2014 with the weight of a franchise-record deal on his shoulders, looking to propel his new club to the postseason. It was a surprise when he came in like a lamb rather than a lion, hitting just 2 home runs in the first two months of the season. Although his power numbers rose modestly as the year wore on, his lack of power was the defining characteristic of his season. Not only were his home runs (14) his lowest total since 2008 – and by quite a wide margin – he also had the fewest number of doubles (34) since his rookie season in 2005.
A quiver full of singles, more walks, and fewer strikeouts were how Cano compensated for his power outage. He was still the best hitter on the Mariners, but barely. He just edged out Kyle Seager in overall production, despite trailing him by 9 home runs.
Cano still contributed with 5.2 fWAR in his Seattle debut. He managed similar overall production on offense to his prior career, albeit in different fashion than ever before, and that he could continue to produce similar if less exiting offense was encouraging, showing that he could adapt to his own changing skills. It was that he needed to make this adaptation so early in the contract that was unsettling.
Also unsettling was his defense. Cano had improved defensively in New York and in his final two pinstripped years, he rated out as an above average second basemen by both UZR and DRS. In 2014, Cano seemed to take a step back. Whether the volatility of the stats over a single season falsely painted his defense as a negative, or whether his skills were eroding was difficult to tell, but it was a difficult circumstance in which to find optimism.
VLADIMIR: Charming start to this contract he's having.
VLADIMIR: And it's not over.
ESTRAGON: Apparently not.
VLADIMIR: It's only beginning.
Act II: 2015 Baseball Season
ESTRAGON: What do we do now?
VLADIMIR: Wait for Cano.
VLADIMIR: This is awful!
If Cano's first season in Seattle was a disappointment, the start of his second must have induced buyer's remorse not seen since the first Pontiac Aztek was driven off a dealer's lot. Once again, he started off slow and at the break he had 6 home runs. Cano had now amassed over a thousand plate appearances in Seattle, and he had a meager 20 home runs to show for it.
Unlike 2014, Cano wasn't able to keep himself afloat spraying singles like he was auditioning for a job to work the infield hose for the Mariners' grounds crew. Not only was he not getting hits, he also more than halved his walk rate from from the previous year, down to 4.6%, while boosting his strikeout rate to a career high 17.3%. By the time the All-Star break rolled around – which was open on his calendar for the first time in half a decade – it was looking like Cano might be getting the Kansas City All-Star Game treatment at home games for the next eight and a half years. The scapegoat's agony.
VLADIMIR: (triumphantly). It's Cano! At last! Gogo! It's Cano! We're saved!
Mercifully, Cano returned from the break and started collecting both hits and home runs at the same time, just like he used to, hitting 15 dingers down the stretch. Alas, the second-half surge couldn't save his season. At the plate he was still above average, but only by 16 percent, rather than the 35-45 percent rage that could be reasonably expected for a hitter of Cano's pedigree on what should be the tail end of his prime. Was his resurgence a Pozzo-ian mirage, or had he finally found his bearings in Seattle?
VLADIMIR: (angrily). Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
Part of why Cano was able to land a contract worth almost a quarter of a billion dollars was his impeccable durability. But if the greatest predictor of future injury is injury history, Cano now has a red flag in his file. After dealing with a stomach ailment early in the season, Cano developed a sports hernia sometime in the second half.
While his athletica pubalgia didn't hamper his offensive performance, his defense continued the decline that had begun the year prior. With sub-par defense and modest offensive production, Cano was a 2.1 fWAR player, tied with Austin Jackson – who had fifty fewer games played – for fifth best among Mariners position players. Probably not the single worst season anyone has ever had, but he had certainly been a disappointment over the first two years of his deal.
Mariners and the albatross
ESTRAGON:(chews, swallows). I'm asking you if we're tied.
VLADIMIR: How do you mean tied?
VLADIMIR: But to whom? By whom?
ESTRAGON: To your man.
VLADIMIR: To Cano? Tied to Cano! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment.
In his yearly post running down the most untradable contracts in baseball, Dave Cameron pegged Cano's contract as the most difficult to move. Singing Cano was not purely a baseball signing, but also a signal to the rest of the league that the Mariners were willing to write big checks, and it seemingly hasn't constrained further spending. Less than a year after signing Cano, they inked Kyle Seager to a 7-year $100 million extension and then brought in free agent Nelson Cruz for 4-years at $50 million. While the Cano contract may be an albatross, it appears to be one the Mariners, appropriately, are able to bear.
Positional adjustment from second to first base has been traditionally held to be 15 runs, or roughly 1.5 fWAR, but more recent research has put that value at 11 runs, which works out to about 1.1 fWAR. Steamer projects a 3.6 fWAR 2016 season, while ZiPS projects 3.9. The midpoint of the two is right around his average from last two seasons (3.7 fWAR). Using the more recent and conservative positional adjustment values, this would drop him down to a 2.6 fWAR first baseman, or Carlos Santana in 2015.
That good second basemen age much like their peers at other positions and do not drop off of [insert cliff in/or around Seattle area] is good news. It's also bad news. Cano is now 33 and players tend to lose half a win a year. Once he turns 37, that yearly decline will jump to three-quarters of a win. Considering his recent production, projected production in 2016, and the typical decline of an aging player, it doesn't look like Mariner's fans will be meeting the Cano they expected back in December of 2013.
ESTRAGON: Where shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Not far.
ESTRAGON: Oh yes, let's go far away from here.
VLADIMIR: We can't.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We have to come back tomorrow.
ESTRAGON: What for?
VLADIMIR: To wait for Cano.
ESTRAGON: Ah! (Silence.) He didn't come?
ESTRAGON: And now it's too late.
'Waiting for Godot' left audience members wondering who Godot was in the first place. Some thought that Godot may symbolize God, but Beckett shot this down, noting that he wrote the play in French, and if he had meant God, he would have said it. Another theory posited that Pozzo, who appears in both acts with his slave Lucky tethered by a rope, was himself Godot.
When Colin Duckworth asked Beckett point-blank whether Pozzo was Godot, the author replied: 'No. It is just implied in the text, but it's not true.'
That quote seems to be contradicted by the following one, where Beckett states:
I know no more about the characters than what they say, what they do, and what happens to them.
Which leaves the audience of the rebooted Waiting for Cano to wonder if Vladimir and Estragon have in fact seen Cano during the first two acts of his contract but failed to recognize him. Perhaps Lucky is the Mariners, who are tethered to the noose that is his contract.
While 2014 was void of his typical power profile, Cano nearly managed to meet his projection of total value for the season. And although his overall offensive numbers weren't great in 2015, he rediscovered himself and put up a very Robinson Cano-like second half of the season, hitting for average and power both. If Cano can manage to stay at second base a little longer, Vladimir and Estragon may finally recognize the player that they have been waiting for the last two years. On offense, at least.
. . .