After years of mediocracy, disappointment, and the clamoring from fans for the team to finally make a game-changing splash, the Mariners organization finally did just that during the 2014 offseason by signing Robinson Cano to a 10 year, $240 million contract.
It was a move that excited even the most cynical of us, as the prospect of having a bonafide star hitter outweighed the fact that it was unlikely that he end up “earning” the massive contract. Responsible and positive allocation of resources be darned. Robinson Cano is fun.
Now, the concerns were mostly focused on the end of the deal, rather than the beginning. He is still a superstar in his theoretical prime, so the expectations for the first few years, maybe even the entire first half of the deal, were still high.
Coming in to the year, ZiPS projected Cano for 4.8 fWAR, and though that is a 1.2 win drop from last year and his lowest total since 2009, it would still make him a top 10 or 15 player in the league. Steamer had him at 5.0 fWAR, essentially equal.
Well, Cano has already accumulated 4.8 fWAR on the season, through just 488 plate appearances. ZiPS and Steamer have both updated their projections to 6.3 WAR on the season.
Even if you think the projections were on the low end, Cano has no doubt either met, or vastly exceeded, expectations in his debut season in Seattle.
Digging deeper into his numbers, we get an even better picture of just how good Cano has been. He currently has a .333/.402/.476 line with 10 home runs and a 144 wRC+.
That 144 mark is the second best of his career, behind his 2012 campaign in which he hit 150. That was certainly unexpected, as it stands to reason that his offense would take a hit as he transitioned from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field.
In some respects, it did. He started off slowly, with a league average 99 wRC+ through April. And though he had a great sophomore month with a 134 wRC+ in May, he still only had two home runs on June 1st. And for the most part, that has continued.
He is on pace for 15 or fewer home runs on the year, and currently owns a .143 ISO, both of which would be lows since his rough 2008 (14 and .139), and far below his career averages of 23 HR and a .195 ISO. But he has made adjustments as a hitter, and has been able to be just as productive as before even without the above average power.
He is currently holding the first .400 OBP of his career, having become one of the better contact guys in the league (.333 average, 2nd in the AL), on top of walking just under 10% of the time, also a career high.
These are the marks of a truly elite player. Not only is he extremely talented in almost every aspect of the game, he is smart enough to know when he has to make changes to his approach in order to maintain his elite level of performance.
He was never a top-of-the-line power guy, despite what his reputation may have been, but he was pretty well above average. Now, he is bordering on average in the power department, but is a top five on-base guy, with average or better defense at a valuable position.
If this production continues for the rest of the year, he will have been worth 6.5 wins. The typical decline comes with roughly a 0.5 drop in WAR every year. Using that model, here are the projections for the rest of his contract.
The table is true to the model until 2020, when I started dropping him 1 full win a year, as he will be 38-41, and I have a hard time seeing him post 11 WAR over that span as the typical estimate suggests. Instead, he is estimated at 37.5 WAR over the contract, still very good for age 31 to age 41.
As of now, the cost of 1 WAR on the open market is somewhere between $6M and $7M per win. We can expect 5% inflation per year (starting at $6.5M), giving us an average of $8.2 million over the 10 year deal. 37.5 wins (which I still think looks like it will end up being too high) at $8.2M per win is a valuation of $307.5 million. $67M more than what the Mariners gave him.
Now, does that seem likely? Probably not. He posted 37.2 WAR career before this season, and it doesn’t seem all that reasonable to think he will be just as good during what is supposed to be his decline.
On the other hand, Cano is not a typical player. As discussed earlier, he has already found a way to match his past production while altering the way he goes about it. We have reason to believe he can continue to do so again in the future as he ages.
Technically, he probably should have started that decline this year, and instead he is on pace to improve upon what he did last year. And that is a big reason why the projections are so high right now.
He is starting out from such a high point, that even a traditional decline allows him to be above average until he is 37, and a positive player for all but his final, age 40 season.
Looking at it from another angle, he has to be worth 29 WAR at $8.2M per win to “be worth” his $240M contract. If he reaches the 6.5 WAR pace this season, he only has to average 2.5 WAR per season for the next nine seasons.
That doesn’t seem far off at all, and even if this year is an aberration and he sees a steeper decline going forward, he is in good shape to reach that mark.
Robinson Cano is a really good baseball player. He became a Mariner and didn’t become a not-good baseball player, which is more than we can say about most players who sign with Seattle.
Be excited right now, and hopefully that excitement will continue for most of the next ten seasons.