Say No to Cano

Entering the off-season, Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman faces decisions which are no less daunting than those faced by Hobson or Sophie.

Having just said farewell to revered Yankee lifers Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte (in the exercise of columnist privilege, we will overlook Pettitte’s 3-year stopover in Houston), Cashman must ponder how far he will go to retain free agent second baseman Robinson Cano, who has demanded a ten-year 300 million contract to finish his career in pinstripes.

Cashman’s decision is complicated by the new MLB salary cap rules, which would severely punish the Yanks for exceeding 189 million in payroll for the 2014 season, and by the uncertain status of Alex Rodriguez who may be suspended for all or part of the 2014 season for his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic.

If the arbitrator hearing A-Rod’s case concludes that the 211 game suspension imposed by MLB was justified, or that A-Rod should be set down for 100 games or more, then all or most of A-Rod’s salary comes off the books for 2014 and a Cano signing becomes more likely, particularly if his deal is back-loaded beyond 2014.

But if, as appears probable, the arbitrator’s hearing drags on into the deep winter, or a negotiated resolution with MLB substantially cuts A-Rod’s suspension, then Cashman will get no relief from A-Rod’s predicament.

Eight years into his career, Cano, 31 years old yesterday, is on track to become the most prolific second baseman of the modern era. He is well on his way to surpassing the batting average, home run and rbi totals of Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, and Ryne Sandberg and has a decent shot at reaching Jeff Kent’s record for career home runs by a second baseman (377) and Rogers Hornsby’s lifetime rbi total (1584). He fields his position beautifully and has a rifle for an arm.

Signed by the Yankees as an 18 year old out of the Dominican Republic and raised in their farm system, Cano is poised to join Yankee legends Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, and Rivera, as Hall of Famers who spent their entire major league careers in the Yankee system.

But don’t bet the ranch on it.

What would have been inconceivable during the George Steinbrenner era is a distinct possibility under the management of Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner, George’s more grounded son. Recognizing that the Yanks can be a mediocre team notwithstanding Cano’s brilliance (see 2013) and that their greater need is for young pitching, the Yanks may well determine that they can follow the example set by St. Louis and Boston and allocate the money saved by letting Cano go to stocking young, powerful arms and acquiring 3-4 modestly priced free agents to fill the several holes in their regular lineup.

And that would be the right decision. Because though Cano is a top of the line player, he is a middle of the road teammate.Your highest paid player should set an example for his teammates, but Cano undermines team spirit by his failure to expend maximum effort and by a seemingly lackadaisical attitude. The game comes so easily to him that he appears not to be trying. On grounders to the right side, he lopes lazily to first base. In the field, he waits ’til the last second to throw out the runner. He is simply not programmed to be a team leader.

The Cardinals and the Red Sox have set the template for how to handle moody superstars who demand or receive maximum free agent money. In the case of the Cardinals, they relinquished free agent superstar Albert Pujols to the Angels and received back a draft choice which they used to acquire Michael Wacha, who as a rookie has been the best pitcher in the playoffs. In 2012, the Red Sox cut their losses and traded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, shedding 240 million in payroll in the process, and used the money saved to acquire five middle tier free agents who have played major roles in their march to the World Series.

The Cardinals are almost entirely built from the draft. Five key players on their World Series roster derive from their 2009 draft alone, including two starters (Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller), closer Trevor Rosenthal, lead-off man Matt Carpenter, and clean-up hitter Matt Adams. Beyond Rosenthal, the rest of the bullpen is comprised primarily of rookie pitchers. In Game 2 of the NLCS, a game started by Wacha, 26 of 27 outs were recorded by rookie pitchers, and in the 13-inning Game 1 marathon, 29 of the first 30 outs were registered by rookies. Ace starter Adam Wainwright is also home-grown.

In the early 1990′s, the Yanks’ farm system was strong, giving rise to Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada. Not coincidentally, this was during the period of George Steinbrenner’s 2-year suspension from baseball. Twenty years of pursuing high-priced free agents and neglecting the draft cannot be overcome by an overnight change of heart.

But saying no to Cano would be a good place to start.

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