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Do Mariners plus Robinson Cano equal contender?

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

MORE: FA tracker: position players | FA tracker: pitchers

The Mariners, in a tectonic kind of move, have agreed to terms with free agent second baseman Robinson Cano on a deal that will span a reported 10 years and pay him roughly $240 million. Like all frontline free agent contracts, this one figures to be liability on the back end but help the team greatly on the front end. That's the nature of signing superstars on the market, and this arrangement is no different.

This, of course, is an undeniable signal that the GM Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners are hellbent on contention in 2014. Their work toward that end is surely not done, but how close does adding a top-tier player like Cano get them to relevance?

First and foremost, Cano is demonstrably an MVP-caliber performer. He's a career .309/.355/.504 hitter, which is outstanding production for an up-the-middle defender. As well, Cano has improved greatly with the glove to that point that he's now a defensive asset, and he's also not burdened by severe platoon issues. Add to all of that his uncommon durability: since 2007, he's averaged 160 games played per season.

Now comes the matter of how Cano's offensive skills will translate to his new environment. Yankee Stadium is, as you know, a greatly accommodating environment for left-handed power hitters like Cano. However, Cano's career batting line at Yankee (.312/.368/.537) is right in step with his overall line since that park opened prior to the 2009 season (.314/.369/.530). In other words, Cano is in no way a product of his home park.

Last season, for instance, Cano hit just 11 of his 27 home runs at home. Now let's see how those home runs would look overlaid on Safeco Field's dimensions ...

(Image: Katron.org)

As you can see, Cano's power is usually to the pull field, but it's deep to the pull field, so that short right field porch in Yankee doesn't often come into play when Cano's at the plate. Of those 11 Yankee Stadium home runs in 2013, only one -- the one to left-center -- might have stayed in the park in Seattle. In a related matter, the reconfigured Safeco Field (the fences were moved in prior to 2013) now plays as a roughly neutral environment as opposed to past seasons, when it was one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in MLB. All of this is to say that Cano's unadjusted numbers are still going to be top-shelf, at least in the near-term.

In terms of overall value, last season Mariner second baseman combined for a WAR of zero. That is to say, Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Robert Andino and Carlos Triunfel added up to a replacement-level second baseman. That's not good. Cano, meantime, was a six-win player in 2013, and that's almost certainly what he'll be in 2014. Plainly, getting a six-win improvment via a single player is a very, very good thing.

With that said, the M's baseline is not a good one. They went 71-91 last season, and according to runs scored and runs allowed, their record should have been 67-95. Improving by 20 games or so from one season to the next is certainly possible, as the champion Red Sox have reminded us, but it's hardly the norm.

Even post-Cano this remains a team in need of pop in the outfield, broad-based OBP improvement, a fallback plan at DH in case Jesus Montero doesn't rebound, depth at the back end of the rotation and a shutdown arm or two in the bullpen. That's ... a lot.

There's certainly hope for improvement within the young core, as position talents like Ackley, Mike Zunino, Justin Smoak, Nick Franklin, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders are all pre-prime. Further development of this group will go a long way toward lifting that aformentioned baseline. There's also an imposing front of the rotation in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and there's star-caliber upside in Taijuan Walker. As well, the addition of Cano makes Franklin or shortstop Brad Miller available for trade.

The important thing is that Mariners brass, after they properly toast this coup, needs to realize that the job isn't done. This is baseball, and one marquee addition can't lift a non-entity of a team into contending status. That's especially the case in the AL West, which is home to two certifiable contenders in Texas and Oakland and another team -- the Angels -- capable of relevance. At this point, with almost a quarter-billion dollars going to Cano, half-measures will be self-defeating.

Cano is one heck of a start, but for this team he's still merely a start. This deal means the M's are "pot-committed" for 2014 and beyond, and now it's time to act accordingly. Otherwise, they're a third- or fourth-place team with a burdensome new contract in tow.

 
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