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The Mariners shouldn’t expect too much from Robinson Cano

Will Cano be as good he was before the suspension?

Seattle Mariners v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

“I’d rather be a pessimist because then I can only be pleasantly surprised.” -Benjamin Franklin

If he wasn’t long deceased, Benjamin Franklin would’ve made an excellent Mariners fan. Seattle is currently in third place, just a game and a half behind Oakland for the final Wild Card spot. Better yet, Robinson Cano returns from his PED suspension this evening. He ought to be the perfect addition for the playoff chase, right? Maybe... and maybe not.

Cano, who is ineligible for postseason play due to the suspension, is 35-years-old. He’s never played more than one inning at any position other than second base, but the Mariners plan to use him at third base and first base upon his return. He has a 126 wRC+ through 14 seasons, and was hitting .287/.385/.441 before the suspension. It sounds like they should be adding a really good hitter to their lineup, but history warns that this may not be the case.

Prior to Cano, there have been ten position players in MLB history that returned from PED suspensions in their 30s.* Here’s how they performed before and after the suspension:

PED Suspensions, ages 30-39

Player Age at suspension Career fWAR before Suspension fWAR/650 PA before suspension Career fWAR after Suspension fWAR/650 PA after suspension
Player Age at suspension Career fWAR before Suspension fWAR/650 PA before suspension Career fWAR after Suspension fWAR/650 PA after suspension
Matt Lawton 33 15.3 2.3 -0.2 -4.5
Mike Cameron 35 40.7 4.7 6.0 3.0
Jose Guillen 32 9.2 1.7 -2.8 -0.7
Jay Gibbons 31 6.1 1.8 -0.7 -2.7
Manny Ramirez 38 66.6 5.3 2.7 2.8
Marlon Byrd 34 16.1 3.0 9.2 3.7
Carlos Ruiz 34 16.3 4.6 6.2 3.2
Nelson Cruz 32 12.0 3.0 18.7 4.9
Jhonny Peralta 31 24.5 3.3 7.1 3.3
Alex Rodriguez 38 116.1 7.2 1.7 1.8
AVERAGE 33.8 32.3 3.7 4.8 1.5

After a suspension, the average fWAR/650 plate appearances is only 41% of what it was before. Cano averages 4.1 fWAR/650 in his career. By this estimation, he should be only a 1.7 fWAR/650 player for the rest of his career. That’s not good news for the Mariners; he has four years and $96M remaining on his contract after 2018. Downshifting on the defensive spectrum certainly won’t help him retain value either.

Only two players actually improved after their suspension. One of them is Nelson Cruz, who is also a current Mariner. He was three years younger when he was punished than Cano is now. Nevertheless, he’s become one of baseball’s premier power hitters since being suspended in 2013.

The other is Marlon Byrd, who was suspended in 2012 at age-34. He came back and played better than ever through 2016, probably because he never stopped using PEDs. He was suspended again in 2016, and never returned to professional baseball.

However, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Being suspended for PED usage might not be the cause of decline. Age is an important factor. Cano will turn 36 this October, as he watches the playoffs from home. Maybe he can provide an offensive boost for the Mariners this year, but maintaining his 126 wRC+ for the remainder of his contract is unrealistic. There have been 87 players in the last 20 years with at least 1000 plate appearances from ages 36-40. Only ten of them have a wRC+ better than 126.

126 wRC+ or better, ages 36-40 (since 1998)

Name wRC+ WAR
Name wRC+ WAR
Barry Bonds 230 47.9
Edgar Martinez 152 20.3
Manny Ramirez 151 9.2
David Ortiz 150 16.1
Jim Thome 138 9.7
Larry Walker 134 8.2
Chipper Jones 132 16.5
Frank Thomas 132 6.9
Ellis Burks 130 6
Moises Alou 130 15.8

That’s a pretty impressive list of names, including a few who also have PED connections (LOL Bonds). However, the only infielder listed is Chipper Jones. Bonds, Ramirez, Walker, and Alou were outfielders, and the rest were almost exclusively designated hitters at this stage of their careers.

Being an infielder is difficult and exhausting. We’re not exactly sure where Cano will line up between now and the end of his contract, but history shows it’s nearly impossible to maintain excellent offense late into a player’s career while staying on the infield dirt. Chipper did it, and that’s part of the reason why he’s a Hall of Famer, but literally no one else has managed to do so in the last 20 years. Maybe Cano can match Chipper, but the odds aren’t good.

When the Mariners last made the playoffs in 2001, Cano was a teenager in short-season ball. Regardless of what happens over the rest of his contract, Seattle fans just want him to get them back to October baseball (even if he can’t participate). They’re within shouting distance of a playoff spot, and his return really can’t hurt (probably).

Yes, there’s a lot of reason for optimism in the Pacific Northwest. But based on the recent history of PED suspensions and aging players, as well as sound advice from Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the Mariners should temper expectations.

*This does not include players who never played again after getting suspended. It also doesn’t include Rafael Palmeiro, who was suspended at age 40.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983