Commentary

The market for Robinson Cano

Who, besides the Yankees, can make a run at the game's top free agent?

Updated: November 22, 2013, 4:11 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Nothing livens up the good old hot-stove conversations these days more than this lightning-rod question:

Who, besides the Yankees, could possibly, conceivably, theoretically, let's-just-say-for-argument's-sake, sign Robinson Cano?

So we tossed that question out there this week -- and got answers like this:

"He's going back to the Yankees," said one AL executive. "Is that even a question?"

"There's nowhere else he can go," said an NL executive.

"Who can do this except the Yankees?" asked another NL exec. "Oh, I'm sure there's interest. But who wants to pay him $30 million a year when he's 40 or 41 years old? Nobody."

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano and Jay Z
Johnny Nunez/Getty ImagesJay Z had dinner with some Mets executives Monday night to discuss free agent Robinson Cano.

And on and on and on. But then, finally, we found one NL official who had actually thought outside the box.

"I keep hearing there's no interest. I don't believe it," he said, flatly.

Well, guess what? Here at World Rumblings and Grumblings headquarters, we don't believe it, either. What we are witnessing is just a very unusual negotiation, mostly because the Yankees have done such a spectacular job so far of framing it to suit their own interests. (Imagine that.)

But that could change. And that will change. The winter is young. The starter's gates just opened. And sooner or later, there will be teams, other than the usual suspect, chasing Robinson Cano. How can there not be?

So who, you ask? Which teams, you ask? We'll get to that shortly. But first, a couple of observations:

Of course he's worth it: Already, a fascinating narrative has welled up around Cano. Namely, that he's not that good. Or something like that. Well, let's keep that in perspective. He's not Mike Trout. He's not Miguel Cabrera. And it's true that he hasn't proved he's the ratings or attendance magnet for the Yankees that, say, Derek Jeter is. But …

He's not that good? Really? Cano is one of only four players in the game who have been worth more than five wins above replacement in each of the past four seasons. (The others: Cabrera, Joey Votto and Adrian Beltre.) And one of just four who have been worth at least 6.8 WAR in each of the past two seasons. (The others: Cabrera, Trout and Andrew McCutchen.)

Cano and Cabrera are the only two players in the sport who have slugged .500-plus for five straight seasons. And how many other second basemen in the 162-game-schedule era have played at least 155 games seven years in a row? Not a one. So let's not forget this is a great, and durable, player we're talking about.

This negotiation is all mixed up: Doesn't it seem as if the world knows way more than usual about where each side stands, so early on? We know already, thanks to the always-active leakers out there, that the Yankees offered this guy "about" $168 million over seven years. We know already that Cano's side asked last summer for $310 million over 10 years. We even know, thanks to reports flying all over New York this week, that Cano "hasn't budged" from that price.

Well, hold on. Would it even be possible for Cano, Jay Z and their representatives at CAA to move off what was clearly an early, keep-me-off-the-market-if-you'd-like-to-overpay-me kind of offer, if the two sides haven't met or negotiated since then? Just asking. But the play-by-play of this thing obscures the truth: Neither of those numbers was ever intended to be The Offer That Gets This Done. So keep that in mind. All right?

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesRight now, it appears Robinson Cano and the Yankees are still far apart in dollars.

But having those figures make the rounds has served a purpose -- at least for the Yankees: It narrows the field. It sends a bunch of teams sprinting in the other direction. So instantly, this is no longer your normal free-agent feeding frenzy. Instead of a bunch of teams checking in to see what it might take and then getting caught up in the chase, this negotiation feels as if it's started with a bunch of teams checking out.

"It means that what he's going to get is probably not going to be market-driven," said one AL executive. "If you had a situation where everyone remained objective and everyone played it smart and you had teams that thought they could sign Robinson Cano for $120 million, you'd probably have five or six teams in on it. Then you'd set $120 million as the starting point and start the bidding, and see how much higher it gets.

"But that's not how this has worked. It would be a good business-school study, to study the finances of marketing somebody like that. It's almost like you're starting out by making the market more exclusive. So all those teams willing to spend $120 million don't apply because they think this is headed for a different stratosphere. It feels like it defies business logic."

Well, it doesn't defy the Yankees' business logic. We'll say that. It's working just fine for them. So it seems as if it's up to Cano's side to draw several of those teams back in. And we still think that's doable.

Why? Simple. This is, without question, the best player on this market. And not only that. Unless the Dodgers don't find a way to extend Hanley Ramirez, there won't be a position player on next winter's market who can approach Robinson Cano, either.

And so, said the NL official quoted earlier, "at some point, don't the teams that are chasing [Shin-Soo] Choo and [Jacoby] Ellsbury and [Brian] McCann have to say, 'Wait a second. Cano's a much better player than those guys. So shouldn't we be thinking about spending another $2 [million] or 3 million a year on a guy like that?' And at that point, I think the market will actually develop later, before teams start writing somebody like Ellsbury a check."

Could be. Which brings us back to the $310 million question: Which teams?

The honest answer is: It's too soon to say. But we've surveyed a bunch of agents and club officials about which teams have the money and/or the need -- either to shore up second base, to make a thunderous splash for their ticket-buyers or, at the very least, to get to hang out with Jay Z and Beyonce in the owners' box. So here are some prime candidates:

Texas Rangers

Rangers

No team was nominated as a Cano suitor more than the Rangers, even though the trade of Ian Kinsler appeared, on the surface, to open up second base for Jurickson Profar. But the Rangers still need offense. And they especially need more left-handed thump, even with Prince Fielder. But to add Cano to their bat collection, the Rangers would have to strike quickly and aggressively, because it would have to be part of a trilogy of moves. The first part was trading Kinsler. The second would be dealing either Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar (including a scenario that could, theoretically, include trading Profar and more for David Price). And the third would be filling Cano's pockets. So they're one-third of the way there. But the longer it drags on, the trickier it gets to make all the machinations work together. "It's a lot to do," said one agent. "I think it's too much."

Seattle Mariners

Mariners

There's no doubt the Mariners are going to be major players in this market. They're trying to sign two bats, a starting pitcher and a closer. And they're signaling that they're ready to overpay if they have to. But one position they haven't been shopping for is second base, with Nick Franklin showing enough promise that they've already moved their former second baseman of the future, Dustin Ackley, to the outfield. So "I'm sure they could do it," said another agent. "But would it make any sense?"

Los Angeles Dodgers

Dodgers

Can we ever count the Dodgers out of any negotiation like this? Granted, they're not acting as if they're interested. Heck, Magic Johnson all but announced publicly last month that Cano won't be getting his zillions from them. And they did just sign a mega-talented Cuban second baseman, Alex Guerrero, to a four-year, $28 million contract. But "isn't there at least a chance the Dodgers are playing possum?" wondered one exec. "He's perfect for them. He's a massive name. It's a position of need. I don't really think Alex Guerrero would stop them from signing this guy if they really wanted him. So would it shock anyone if they had a one-day meeting and boom-boom-boom, he's signed?" Hmmm. Surprise? Yes. Shock? Not really.

Washington Nationals

Nationals

Remember, the Nationals dream big, win-the-World Series dreams. And they have numerous dollars in the checking account to blow up the headlines with a move like this. But like the Rangers, the Nationals would have to do some maneuvering of their current infielders to make Cano fit -- shifting Anthony Rendon from second to third, moving Ryan Zimmerman from third to first and trading Adam LaRoche. And then there's the question other teams keep asking: Would they really risk frazzling their mutually beneficial relationship with Scott Boras by handing over $200 million or so to a player represented by his new archenemy, Jay Z? "I just can't see them doing that," said one exec. "It would be like sleeping with your best friend's wife."

Or how about …

Detroit Tigers: They don't need a second baseman anymore. But they have freed up a lot of money. And there has long been talk, even in Texas, about Kinsler moving off second base, maybe even to play left field. So if the Tigers can't use their newfound financial flexibility to get an extension done with Max Scherzer, could Cano still fall under their anything-is-possible scenarios?

Baltimore Orioles: Here's a team that still does need a second baseman. But the O's are acting as if they don't have the payroll room to do anything this humongous.

Toronto Blue Jays: Another club with a need for a second baseman. But team policy wouldn't allow them to go seven or eight years for Cano or anyone else.

San Francisco Giants: Marco Scutaro can play positions other than second base. But as one agent put it, "their style is to overpay their own guys, not someone else's guys."

Los Angeles Angels: In theory, you could argue they could do this, even though they already have four players scheduled to make $20 million-plus in 2016. But they need pitching. And how's that whole make-the-biggest-signing-of-the-winter thing been working out for them?

Chicago Cubs: Maybe if Cano were younger, or the Cubs were further along. But realistically, they're a year or two away from these sorts of moves.

Kansas City Royals: Desperate to add a proven bat at second base. But are they this desperate?

Chicago White Sox: No big-market team has cleared as much money off the books as the White Sox. And they're certainly not locked into Gordon Beckham for life. But 200 to 300 million bucks for Robinson Cano? "I don't think that's their business model anymore," said one agent.

New York Mets: Hey, they did meet with Cano and his star-studded entourage. That's more than the Yankees have done lately.

You can easily convince yourself that any of those teams would or wouldn't have a reason to make a big run at Robinson Cano. We have no doubt a few of them will. Then again, we also have no doubt the Yankees will do a masterful job of working the market, applying pressure to Cano and reminding him that he needs the Yankees as much as they need him.

Maybe, in the end, this will turn out to be just a one-team negotiation after all. But never forget this: Cano, Jay Z, Beyonce and their friends at CAA have 300 million reasons to make sure it isn't.

Ready to Rumble

• A refrain we've already heard a lot this winter: You think this free-agent class is thin? Have you taken a look at next year's class?

"There are some decent arms," said one exec. "But there's a chance there's going to be absolutely nothing out there on the hitter's market."

The only three potential 2014-15 free agents who hit 30 home runs this year are David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano and Adam Dunn, all of whom will be age 35 or older. And here are the only potential position players who had a WAR of 4.0 or better this season:

     Hanley Ramirez -- 5.4
     Colby Rasmus -- 4.8
     Ortiz -- 4.4
     Russell Martin -- 4.3
     Chris Denorfia -- 4.3
     Brett Gardner -- 4.2

"And who knows," wondered the same exec, who expects the Dodgers to lock up Hanley, "how many of those guys will even make it onto the market?"

David Price
Price

• Teams dabbling in the David Price trade market report there's an interesting wrinkle in the structure of Price's contract that could make dealing for him even more expensive than previously thought.

Price signed a one-year, $10.1125 million deal last January, but $4.1125 million of it was wrapped in a deferred signing bonus that isn't payable until next year. At the time, we were told the contract was structured that way for tax reasons, and had no connection to the possibility of Price getting traded. But that hasn't stopped some teams from wondering.

While the rules say the Rays are responsible for paying Price that deferred money, there is nothing that precludes them from negotiating a trade that would require the team dealing for him to take on that debt. So the Rays could use that $5 million as just one more leverage point. (i.e., "We'll take a slightly lesser prospect if you pay him that money we owe him.") And it wouldn't shock other teams one bit if that money becomes one more piece in the complicated puzzle of a Price deal, if one ever gets done this winter.

Phillies

• If the trend in this sport is that teams are getting younger, the Phillies apparently didn't get that memo. In their current roster configuration, five of their prospective starting position players next year will be 34 or older. And in case they're wondering, only four teams since 1900 have had five players, age 34-plus, who played at least 120 games in a season -- the 1985 Angels, 2002 Giants, 2003 Astros and 2004 Astros.

On one hand, those teams averaged 91 wins. On the other, baseball wasn't testing for greenies then!

Carlos Ruiz
Ruiz

• In a vacuum, almost no team would hand out a three-year contract to a catcher who is about to turn 35 years old. But the Phillies gave Carlos Ruiz a three-year contract because there was a very real chance he was headed to Boston if they hadn't, and because the more they contemplated the alternatives, the more Pepto Bismol they needed to gulp.

So clubs we've spoken with haven't been as critical of that contract as you might think. And agents have given excellent reviews to the work of Ruiz's agent, Marc Kligman. Nevertheless, for the Phillies, this is a dangerous contract.

ESPN's awesome Stats & Information Group has been tracking free-agent contracts since the offseason of 1990-91. And this was only the fourth deal of three years or more signed by a catcher who was going to play the following season at age 35 or older. Here are the other three contracts, and how they worked out:

Joe Girardi, Cubs, 2000-02, ages 35-37 (three years, $5.5 million)
      Games played, by year: 106-78-90.
      Combined WAR over life of deal: 2.0.

Damian Miller, A's, 2005-07, ages 35-37 (three years, $8.75 million)
      Games played, by year: 114-101-58.
      Combined WAR over life of deal: 1.5.

Jorge Posada, Yankees, 2008-11, ages 36-39 (four years, $52.4 million)
      Games caught, by year: 30-100-83-1.
      Games as DH: 15-9-30-90.
      Combined WAR over life of deal: 2.6.

• One thing is certain. The Ruiz contract was great for the free-agent catcher market. It "really helps McCann," said one agent, because it raised the salary bar and didn't shrink the field, since Ruiz signed with a team that wasn't a McCann suitor. And "it helps [Jarrod] Saltalamacchia," said an AL executive, because "to see a 35-year-old catcher get three more years, coming off the kind of [down] year he came off of, means there's no way he gets less than three years now. And it probably gives him the leverage to get four."

If Jarrod Saltalamacchia really is intent on getting four years, it almost certainly means he won't be back in Boston. One reason the Red Sox pursued Ruiz so hard, according to clubs and agents that have spoken with them, is that they've made a decision that they don't want to commit for more than two years to any catcher.

Brian Wilson
Wilson

• There's increasing buzz in Detroit that the Tigers' closer search is starting to tilt toward Brian Wilson over Joe Nathan. And given that Wilson is seven years younger (turning 32 next March), you don't need to be a descendant of Jose Valverde to understand why. But this could depend on how patient the Tigers want to be. Wilson's agent, Dan Lozano, has been telling clubs that The Beard wants to take his time choosing his next employer. And Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has never been a bidding-war kind of free-agent shopper.

• If Tim Hudson can get a two-year contract, at age 38, coming off a broken ankle, is there a two-year deal out there for Bartolo Colon, even as he approaches age 41? Clubs that have spoken with Colon's agent, Adam Katz, say he isn't rushing into any one-year contracts before he determines whether someone is willing to tack on a second year.

A couple of things to consider on that front: A) Over the last 24 offseasons, just four 40-something starters have landed any kind of multiyear deal in free agency -- Jamie Moyer (before the 2009 season), Kenny Rogers (2006), David Wells (2005) and Woody Williams (2007); and B) Colon's last multiyear contract was signed 10 years ago next month (with the Angels).

Giancarlo Stanton
Stanton

• The Marlins may have made up their minds not to trade Giancarlo Stanton -- at least not this winter. But industry sources who have spoken with them say they're still wrestling internally with Stanton's short-term and long-term future. Don't forget that, three full seasons into this guy's career, they still haven't even found a way to sign him to a one-year contract. (They've renewed him for three straight years.) But now that he's arbitration-eligible, they have to approach him with a multiyear offer one of these winters. And that's likely to be next year, after he's had a chance to take stock of the upside of all the young talent around him. But based on his track record, he's still a good bet to say "no thanks" to that offer, too. At which point, it'll be time to turn him back into the Human Trade Rumor he's been for the last 12 months. We can hardly wait.

• The Rockies have shown interest in a guy who could emerge as one of the best low-risk, high-upside free-agent hitters on the market: Michael Morse, who is currently recovering from surgery to remove a bone spur in his left wrist. Morse in April and May, despite playing half his games at Safeco Field: .254, with a .789 OPS and 11 home runs in 173 at-bats. Morse the rest of the year, while trying to play through those wrist issues: .165, with a .477 OPS and only two home runs in 139 at-bats. It wasn't until after the season that he finally underwent an MRI that revealed he needed surgery, which explained those last four months. A bunch of teams are on his trail. But if you were picking out free agents who were made for Coors Field, how high would this guy be on anybody's list?

• Finally, the Braves continue to search for a team willing to take Dan Uggla off their hands. But while they do, here's a mind-boggling stat to consider:

Uggla hit 22 home runs this year -- and still barely had a higher slugging percentage this season (.362) than a guy who hit no home runs (Ben Revere, who slugged .352). Hard to do, friends.

Tweet of the Week

Among the many voices weighing in last week on the debate about how to define the "valuable" in MVP was that late, great 19th-century iron man, @OldHossRadbourn:

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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