A few years ago, a number of Yankees fans expressed a common sentiment: a desire for a certain underperforming player to be traded in the offseason. The player comment in 2009's Baseball Prospectus annual wasn't exactly glowing, either:
A first-pitch swing at a ball out of the strike zone, popping it up to short left field, a disgusted shake of the head and dip of the shoulders, and a futile trot to first base; that was Cano's too-frequent contribution in 2008. He opened the season batting .151 in April, and "recovered" to bat .283/.311/.430 from then through late September. At that point, mechanical adjustments implemented by coach Kevin Long kicked in...The Yankees believe that those changes will carry over, but if they don't, the Yankees will have to think about making a change, fast. When Cano isn't hitting for average, his on-field contribution is down to his glove, which is good but not in Mazeroski territory.
Such negative commentary seems like an overreaction to someone who had maintained a .303/.335/.468 line over his first four seasons, but receiving MVP votes in every season from 2009 onwards must have seemed unlikely to even Cano's biggest supporters.
It's easy now to laud how good Cano has become—a .314/.361/.529 line playing all but six games, with 82 home runs to boot and a pretty good reputation on defense as well. It seems almost superfluous to remember Cano's earlier struggles. Yet, remembering is more than just a reminder of how temperamental a fan base can be; it's a reminder that even the best players will have down years, but the perception of them will be largely formed by when in a career it occurs. It's normal for a rookie to struggle or a player on the wrong side of 35 to not have their best seasons; it's much more concerning when it comes in a young player's fourth season with no injuries to account for lost production.
In some respects, the Yankees refraining from selling low on Cano may yet deserve to be enshrined in the pantheon of close calls, perhaps not on the level of the Yankees nearly trading Mariano Rivera, but certainly notable in its own right. After all, since the end of the 2008 season, Cano hasn't posted an OPS lower than 870, an OPS+ lower than 120, or missed more than two games for injury reasons. Over the last three seasons there have been a number of players who have proven to be of exceptional value to the Yankees, but none have had both the production and the health of Cano.
Unfortunately, the Yankees won't be able to just sit back and enjoy the rest of whatever Cano's prime has to offer. Cano's contract (along with teammate Curtis Granderson's) is up after 2013, and while right now it might be tempting to say "give Cano what he wants, this isn't a hard question", there are other factors that will need to be considered. Cano, after all, is a middle infielder, and Derek Jeter/Omar Vizquel aside, this is not a subset of baseball players who are known for aging gracefully. Cano will turn 31 after the 2013 season—not old, but 2014 will be the first year of his next contract, not the last. Cano has shown a remarkable ability to stay healthy, but how much are the Yankees willing to gamble that he will remain so? For obvious reasons, injury risks increase with age, and while 2014 shouldn't be a problem, are the Bombers willing to gamble that in 2018? 2020? When one considers the length of contracts that have been given in recent years to the game's top free agents, it seems almost absurd that the Yankees would sign Cano for anything less than five or six years. Yet, very few second basemen have been successful into their late 30s or beyond; the list is largely limited to outliers such as Eddie Collins and Joe Morgan.
There is also the looming issue of the Yankees' 2014 austerity plan—that is, their goal to rein in payroll to a max of $189 million by that season. As noted in the link in the previous paragraph, Yankees' president Randy Levine is on record as saying that the Yankees will be able to re-sign both Cano and Granderson and still not exceed their proposed budget. Currently the Yankees have $75 million for (all of) four players already slotted for 2014; that Michael Pineda will be in his first year of arbitration should probably not go unmentioned, either. Certainly, there's room to sign Cano and Granderson, although perhaps not to a contract they (well, Cano especially) might have expected pre-austerity plan admission.
Cano's blossoming into one of baseball's stars—and one of the game's biggest at his position—has been a marvel to watch, arguably the team's best second baseman since Willie Randolph. Early struggles aside, Cano—who was not seen as much of a prospect—has become invaluable for the Yankees, and he is still young and healthy enough even after seven seasons to have much of his career still before him. Contract negotiations are rarely a smooth ride, but it might again be decades before the Yankees find a second baseman as good as the one that currently patrols the infield.