Mariners Woo Cano; Yanks Left Holding Their Johnson
In a heavily foreshadowed but still shocking turn of offseason events, the Mariners have reportedly inked Robinson Cano to a ten year, $240 million dollar contract. According to MLB Trade Rumors, the deal was first reported by Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes. Cano will supposedly receive a full no trade clause. While the deal is still not official, the Mariners released a statement towards the end of the day that more or less confirmed the reports:
“We are not able to confirm any news regarding Robinson Cano at this time. If and when an agreement is completed and finalized, we will announce.”
How the heck did this happen? ESPN’s Jim Bowden explains:
Thanks, Jim. Great insight. That’s why you were a Major League GM.
The writing may have been on the wall a couple of days ago when the Evil Empire handed Jacoby Ellsbury a hefty $153M contract and threw Kelly Johnson a $3M peanut, effectively filling both the position and the production holes that Cano would leave on his way out of town (yeah, KJ isn’t really a starting 2B in Yankee land, but he’s at least positional insurance). According to people who tell us that they know what they’re talking about, the Yankees never offered Cano more than $160M and were not prepared to go above $175M. So it looks kind of silly in hindsight for Cano to have fired Scott Boras and switched to CAA if all he was going to do was chase the money anyway – except it might be a bit more complicated than that.
As others have already speculated before me, it’s possible that the endgame here for CAA/Cano was to use the Mariners’ offer as a bargaining tactic to get New York to up the ante. After all, Cano supposedly cut ties with Boras because he wanted to be a Yankee for life, and Boras wasn’t a big fan of that attitude (or the bargaining position that put him in). So the Cano camp might have leaked the M’s offer a few days ago to put pressure on New York, with the ultimate goal of getting what they believed to be a fair offer from the Yankees, but it backfired with dramatic irony. Once the Yankees found out that Cano was seriously considering a $240M offer from the #6 org, it would have been rather easy for them to call his bluff and essentially give him an “oh really? then take it” message. If Cano and friends had played their cards right – perhaps more subtly – would it have been possible for them to slowly get the Yankees to increase their offer to, say, the $200M mark? Would a $40M dollar offer gap have been small enough for Cano to choose to stay in his preferred city? We’ll probably never know, and all of this speculation might be complete bullshit anyway. On to the transaction analysis.
The Mariners had a lot of positional needs, but second base wasn’t one of them. With Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin already in the fold, the Ms had both depth and upside at the keystone. Now they have an expensive superstar there, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that one of Ackley or Franklin will be packing their bags after a pre-2014 trade. Maicer Izturis is terrible and Ryan Goins looks like more of a one-dimensional bench player than anything, so the Blue Jays could use either one of these guys. Smart money might be on the Ms flipping Franklin, since Ackley got some reps in CF late last season and the OF is a thin spot for the Mariners. Ackley also might have lower value than Franklin right now, despite having been a much higher caliber prospect at one point, due to two very disappointing seasons in a row for Seattle during which his manager ridiculously blamed sabermetrics for his struggles.
This one should be easy to analyze financially. It’s a ten year mega-contract, and those are always a bad idea. Cano might be worth it for a few years, but Seattle better win now because it’ll be an albatross before long. Let’s break it down to see just how bad it is on paper, using our value calculation figures, Cano’s 2014 Steamer projection of 5.4 WAR, and the standard back-of-the-napkin decline of -0.5 wins per season:
Wait, what? A projected surplus of nearly $80M? That seems crazy… and it probably is.
For one thing, we know that star players decline more sharply than average simply because they have further to fall. More importantly though, our -0.5 WAR per year decline estimation is probably far too hand wavy to use over a ten year period. The nice, smooth player aging curve is really just an amalgamation of thousands of more precipitous declines. You’d be hard pressed to find a player who declines by a gentle, even amount every season. Anecdotally, players seem to age in much sharper steps. Most established big leaguers seem to scuffle as youngsters until they “figure it out”, and then they’re all of a sudden good. Likewise, most veterans seem to be fairly constant producers until one season when their talent level, for whatever reason, just isn’t what it used to be. If you look at Cano’s similarity score comparisons on Baseball Reference, you’ll see quite a few players who fell from 5, 6, or 7 WAR production to league average-ish or worse in one offseason (his most similar batter is Nomar Garciaparra, which would obviously be an extreme example of star decline).
So our projection for Cano is definitely rosy. It has him being awesome for the next couple of years and then slowly aging into the Seattle sunset. It’s definitely an above the mean projection – the upside for Seattle, if you will. Let’s look at some different scenarios.
First, let’s just pull a hypothetical scenario out of our proverbial… um, comparison pool. Ryne Sandberg played 2nd base and he’s Cano’s 5th best comparison through age 30 according to BR. Sandberg was worth 6.3 WAR at age 30, very close to Cano’s age 30 mark last year (6.0). Sandberg played at basically the same talent level for the next two years (6.4 and 7.4) before turning into an average-ish pumpkin. He was worth 2.4 wins at age 33, 0.9 wins in 57 games at age 34, and then 3.1 wins at 35. At 36 he was nearly replacement level, 0.7 WAR in a full season. Here is what Cano would be worth if he Sandbergs:
Now we’ve inverted the picture. Instead of a surplus of $80M, the Mariners would be looking at a projected deficit of around $50M. That was an almost entirely arbitrary scenario though, so let’s do something a bit more involved and ostensibly informative. I’ll take Cano’s top Basebell Reference similarity score comparisons through age 30 and make a quick aging curve, and then we’ll step down Robinson’s Steamer projection based on the found increments. David Wright is his #1 comparison, but we’ll leave him out obviously because he’s still a young man. Aramis Ramirez is also in the top 10, but we’ll keep him because he’s old.
Here is the “curve”:
And here is that information translated into raw and percentage based declines for each year:
I kind of like how our small sample size curve has a dead cat bounce there at age 37. It’s silly, but aesthetically it almost makes it seem more realistic.
Anyways, let’s just trust that Steamer is way more predictive than our curve for 2014, and then after that apply our case specific decline numbers. I think it obviously makes more sense to apply the decline percentages, since Cano is starting off fairly high above this curve.
Well that’s kind of fucking freaky. In what might be our most sane projected value calculation scenario for Cano, he ends up being almost exactly worth his $240M contract. So Robinson Cano might not even have to be an ageless wonder to be worth this mega-deal. There’s still massive downside for the Mariners, of course, but the mean projection here just might be a break-even scenario. Except for the fact that our $/WAR figure we are using here might be high…
It’s common sense that win #90 is worth a hell of a lot more to a baseball team than win #75. The marginal value of a win isn’t flat along the win curve. The Mariners won just 71 times last year. The value of the wins that the Mariners just purchased could be as low as perhaps 25% of the market cost of a win. Please see the following resource for some more information on this concept and some really neato figures: click me! I’ll just show you a single basic figure made by that famous Nate Silver guy, that kind of kicks off the aforelinked piece of research (it’s older so don’t worry too much about the $ numbers on the Y axis):
Now, the Ms have all offseason to change their win projection and increase the value of the wins they just bought with Cano. Indeed, there are some rumours swirling that Seattle had several big trades and signings on hold that they were prepared to pull the trigger on if they could land Cano. Projection systems had the Mariners around 77 wins (hat tip to Chris) for 2014 before they signed Rob. If the Mariners get a 3 or 4 win upgrade from Cano, and then supplement that with a 3 or 4 win upgrade from David Price and a couple of wins from another trade or free agent signing, then they might not suffer from this marginal-value-of-a-win penalty. It won’t be easy to pull off, and it will probably be impossible for them to do in an efficient manner, but it could happen.
So in short, the Mariners made a fairly irresponsible signing with a lot of risk that could end up being positively egregious if they fail to add enough wins this offseason to make Cano’s short term production worth enough for them considering the marginal-value-of-a-win curve.