The 10-year, $240 million contract Robinson Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners on Friday is going to be a complete disaster, and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring history, aging curves and all other matters of rational thought. By now, everyone in baseball, down to the most willfully ignorant people, understand that free agents are like fruit. Early on, at their ripest, they can be wondrous and worth every penny. Then they start to get soft, and the wrinkles come, and the mold, and then my God what is that awful monstrosity.
Contrary to popular opinion, that is not the most important part of the story of how a lifelong New York Yankee absconded 3,000 miles west to what has devolved into a baseball ghost town. Even the Mariners, with absentee ownership, a team president on the way out and a lame-duck general manager, recognize that lavishing a 31-year-old with a decade-long contract is a move that considers the baseball implications secondary, maybe tertiary.
Here is the truth about the third-biggest contract in sports history: For everyone, respect trumped better judgment.
Rather than spend his career in pinstripes, where he is far likelier to win another championship, Cano watched the Yankees – the freaking Yankees, professional sports' great monetary monolith – offer him all of $7 million more than Jacoby Ellsbury. He told them to take their seven years and $160 million, and all 204 home runs he hit over the last nine seasons, and shove it. He was not going to skulk back to the Bronx with tens of millions more in tax-free dollars left in Seattle. It wasn't the money so much as what the money meant. He got the Albert Pujols deal, and Albert Pujols is merely one of the best players ever.
The disrespect heaped on the Mariners is self-inflicted, the product of upper-level mismanagement that turned a booming franchise into a perpetual bottom dweller. Losing becomes a chicken-and-egg thing, whereby nobody wants to come to a franchise because it's losing and it keeps losing because nobody wants to come to it. Nothing like $240 million to, at the very least, interrupt the notion that the Mariners are incapable of playing with the big boys. They gave the biggest free agent on the market a 150 percent premium on the Yankees' last bid. That doesn't happen.
Ironically, the Yankees were done in by their own deeds. They built free agency into this process of absurd riches and stratospheric prices, and suddenly they were raging against the idea that Cano deserved to be paid like one of the best players in the game. And all because it took their own mistakes – Alex Rodriguez's 10-year albatross especially, – to recognize the foolhardiness in long-term contracts foisted on aging assets. Their tack with Cano was smart, yes. It was prudent, sure. The Yankees will not regret losing him, not as long as they remind themselves how to develop a player or two. Because it is New York, of course, it will be remembered as something altogether different: The Yankees wanting Cano to genuflect to their brand and their power, and Cano refusing to offer commensurate respect.
Instead, he will carve out his niche in Seattle, a place many believed had too much going against it. There is the 274-374 record over the last four seasons. And the 3,583-mile distance between Seattle and San Pedro de Macoris, his hometown in the Dominican Republic. And that Cano hired Jay Z as his agent specifically to handle his marketing, and companies are far likelier to want the Yankee than the Mariner. Ultimately, what Seattle gave him – the crown to King County – mattered most.
Assurances came, too, that the Mariners would surround him with more talent, and that is where this may get even more interesting. As Yahoo Sports first reported Wednesday, the Mariners want to trade for Rays ace David Price and may be willing to give up top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker, the sort of player who could persuade Tampa Bay to deal the left-hander. Moreover, the Cano signing leaves second baseman Nick Franklin jobless, and Walker and Franklin constitutes the beginning of a very strong package, the sort of which could lead to a Felix Hernandez-David Price-Hisashi Iwakuma dream rotation.
And if they're really dreaming, and Kansas City signs Carlos Beltran, the Royals may look to part with DH Billy Butler, whom the Mariners have long coveted, and Seattle could focus a deal around young left-hander James Paxton, whom the Royals like. And then, suddenly, not only are they looking at a rotation that includes Price, whom they'd also prevent from going to division rival Texas, thus adding a modicum more value to their end of the deal, they've got a lineup with Cano, Butler, perhaps another free agent bat like Nelson Cruz, the vastly underrated Kyle Seager, potential impact catcher Mike Zunino and young shortstop Brad Miller. Even in a division with the Rangers and the loaded-up A's and the moneyed Angels, maybe, just maybe, there's enough there to win.
To make this Cano deal less of a disaster, that's exactly what the Mariners need to do: everything possible to win the next five years. Stretch the budget, exhaust scouting resources, pay out the wazoo for a new GM if need be, have a quick ax if first-year manager Lloyd McClendon isn't the right guy. Remind the baseball world that at one point there was nothing cooler than a backward Seattle Mariners cap.
That's what this Robinson Cano deal is for the Mariners: a shot at covering up those lost years. Unfortunately, mistakes tend to compound mistakes, and in order for this crazy-money, crazier-years gambit to work, the Mariners can only hope Cano is different than his predecessors, that he defies history and aging curves and does something completely irrational.
Log a rare victory for respect over better judgment.