Projecting Robinson Cano's Next Ten Years

Mitch Stringer-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Robinson Cano will almost certainly be extended, but do even the great second basemen have strong finishes to their careers?

Robinson Cano just completed his eighth regular season as a Yankee, and his third in a row as arguably the Yankees' best player. He's also got just one year left on his contract, though, and so, as he works toward helping the Yankees earn their second trophy of his tenure, it's worth asking: what should they do with him going forward?

I mean, they're going to extend him, of course. Barring something almost entirely unforeseeable -- he falls apart completely a la Andruw Jones ca. 2008, he suffers a catastrophic injury, we find out he took a banned substance or is best friends with that cancerous A-Rod -- not retaining Cano would be unforgivable as a matter of public relations. More importantly, Cano's a great player coming off his best year, so if you're trying to win now, as the Yankees always are, you're not going to improve your short-term chances by doing anything else with that money. So I guess the real, salient question is what to expect from him during his next contract, and for how many years Yankees fans should hope they lock him down.

The best way I can think of to approach that question is to find comparable players through history, and take a look at how they aged. Cano will be 30 in a couple weeks. Among all players in the post-integration era (1947 to the present, because what Rogers Hornsby did 85 years ago doesn't seem especially pertinent here) who were second basemen at least half the time through their age-29 seasons, Cano's 5110 PA rank twelfth, and his 34.1 Baseball-Reference WAR ranks ninth. To make sure we have a good sampling on both sides, let's look at all 16 2Bs who had at least 25 WAR through age 29 (I was going to bottom-limit the PA too, but all but three had at least 4000 PA, and I think at least one of those three is important):

Player

WAR

G

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

SO

GDP

SB

CS

BA

OBP

SLG

Joe Morgan

44.3

1197

4396

769

1188

194

64

103

433

811

473

45

320

90

.270

.384

.414

Roberto Alomar

40.9

1416

5460

893

1659

296

54

113

653

600

630

121

322

85

.304

.372

.440

Rod Carew

39.8

1172

4450

640

1458

212

52

46

473

399

547

108

172

81

.328

.383

.430

Chuck Knoblauch

38.9

1163

4542

830

1357

235

55

60

455

589

523

88

307

89

.299

.387

.414

Bobby Grich

38.8

982

3458

524

896

159

29

83

372

569

643

60

87

52

.259

.369

.394

Lou Whitaker

37.3

1283

4705

724

1320

202

49

93

522

576

575

82

95

56

.281

.357

.404

Willie Randolph

37.2

1210

4522

746

1238

180

51

29

361

696

366

114

202

66

.274

.370

.355

Ryne Sandberg

36

1234

4893

756

1395

226

54

139

549

414

702

77

250

69

.285

.341

.439

Robinson Cano

34.1

1214

4731

718

1459

334

28

177

715

285

604

153

31

27

.308

.351

.503

Pete Rose

34

1223

4950

799

1532

255

61

90

485

470

531

76

62

67

.309

.371

.440

Chase Utley

33.1

735

2739

490

817

189

22

130

492

272

496

44

60

11

.298

.375

.526

Dustin Pedroia

30

856

3388

560

1025

245

11

90

409

349

329

73

102

26

.303

.369

.461

Nellie Fox

30

1299

5131

780

1524

205

72

25

436

403

123

96

61

55

.297

.356

.380

Craig Biggio

28.4

1055

3880

615

1105

221

24

79

389

475

574

47

196

65

.285

.369

.415

Bill Mazeroski

26.7

1574

5759

609

1525

223

55

115

651

312

544

142

20

16

.265

.302

.383

Ian Kinsler

25.5

773

3001

558

826

176

16

124

395

351

419

75

136

22

.275

.355

.469

(Provided by Baseball-Reference.com)


Four of these guys, including Cano, are still active (and three are currently aged either 29 or 30, oddly enough). I'm going to ignore Pete Rose, because he was a special case, and he had essentially stopped playing second forever by age 27. The eleven others averaged 36.2 WAR and 5,313 PA through age 29; the same eleven averaged 18.1 WAR and 3,029 PA from age 30 through eternity.

That doesn't sound all that bad, really, but to break it down further: they averaged 15.4 WAR from ages 30-32, and 10.7 in however many years they played from 33 on. A 5.0 WAR is comfortably an All-Star type of season, so on average, they were brilliant through age 32 or 33, and fell off sharply thereafter.

Now, obviously, one doesn't automatically compare well to each of these guys simply because they're all second basemen. For the last three years, as you know, Cano has been an elite hitter for average and power who has developed passable plate discipline; he's an average to very good defender, depending on where you look or who you ask, but gets by on reflexes and technique rather than speed or agility. Second base could become a serious challenge if he loses a step or two, but if his bat stays roughly where it is, it's easy to see him shifting successfully to first base or left field down the road. On the other end of the spectrum, Mazeroski (who turned into a pumpkin at 32) and Fox (who did the same at 33) were great fielders with career OPS+es significantly below 100; there's no point in comparing Cano to guys like that. Even the likes of Knoblauch (decline started at 29; usefulness completely vanished by 31), Alomar (had his best season at 33 and immediately fell off a cliff) and Grich (ceased being elite by 28, but remained useful through 36), while they had some excellent offensive seasons, had a lot of their value tied up in their ability to play second base, and play it very well.

Cano is a rare bird indeed. So I'd like to focus on five players who, to me, are the most comparable to Cano, chiefly because their bats were strong enough, at least in their primes, to play at any position: Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg, Rod Carew, Craig Biggio, and Chase Utley.

That's a good group to be in, although Morgan and Carew were certainly better than Cano through 29 (as was Utley, for the years in which he was in the majors). All of these guys except arguably Carew had above-average power, as does Cano. Sandberg, Biggio and Utley were recognized as excellent second basemen at their peak, but I'd argue that only Biggio fit the profile of the typical small, quick, tough-as-nails defensive second sacker. Utley and Cano are both startlingly slow for middle infielders, and while the others certainly had excellent footspeed on the basepaths, it didn't always tend to translate to excellent range. You could see all of them sliding to an easier position eventually; two of them did, and one might be a year or so away from it.

You're never going to find a perfect comparison for a great player, but those five are the best I can do. With that in mind, here's how the rest of their careers unfolded:

At age 29, Morgan was really just coming into his own; he'd been an unheralded, very good player in Houston, but suddenly exploded just as he came to Cincinnati at age 28, averaging an incredible 9.4 WAR per year from age 28 through 32. Age 30 was an off year by his ridiculous standards (8.4 WAR), but age 31 and 32 were his back-to-back MVP years of 1975 and ‘76, probably the two best years a second baseman has ever had. He had one more very good (but significantly lesser) year in ‘77, then was largely average from 34 through 38, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Sandberg was kind of a mini-Morgan: age 30-32 was the best sustained stretch and three of the five best years of his career, with an average of 6.3 WAR. He had just four years left after that, two of them average-ish and the other two quite poor..

Carew had already begun a shift to first during his age-29 year, and moved there more or less full-time from age 30 on, actually ending his career with more games at first than second. Here again, he remained brilliant offensively through age 32, including that MVP season at age 31 in which he batted .388. Carew remained at least a good hitter through age 37 and a passable one until his retirement at 39; the WARs diminished as his defensive value and health faded, but he still averaged a very respectable 3.0 from age 33 through 37.

Biggio you probably remember, though you may not realize exactly how little value he provided in his later years; here again, he remained excellent through 32 (including 9.3 WAR at 31 and almost identical offensive brilliance at 32), but after a solid 4.9 WAR at age 33, Biggio topped out at 3.1 WAR and averaged 1.5 from age 34 through 40 (I'm being charitable and ignoring his abysmal final year).

And then Utley, who I think is the most interesting comp, just because they're similar players to me: powerful, elite hitters, and slow but smart and graceful fielders. Utley's 29 season was his fourth in a row with a WAR that was (a) above 7.0 and (b) higher than the last -- 7.0, 7.1, 7.7, 8.8 -- and he followed that up with a fifth brilliant year at age 30 (but couldn't continue the escalating trend, with 8.0 WAR). In the three years since, of course, he's missed significant time with injury, and his per-game performance has been excellent, but gradually diminishing. He's looking at a potential position switch in 2013 or 2014, and it's very unlikely he'll be an MVP-caliber player again.

That's just five guys, and anything could happen -- I hope and trust that the Yankees have a better system than I do of projecting Cano's future. There's a pretty startling trend there, though, and if you're looking to set realistic expectations for Cano going forward, I think you need to start with the next three years. Based on history, I'd expect Cano to remain a very, very good hitter for at least the next three years, while his abilities in the field gradually decline. I would think that a realistic best-case scenario for Cano after that would be to essentially follow Carew's path: move to first base or left, and retain enough of his offensive abilities to remain an above-average player well into his mid-late thirties. And if you're looking for reasons to believe in that, Cano has consistently maintained high batting averages better than anyone I've looked at here other than Carew, and, in my own totally subjective estimation, seems like more of a "pure hitter" than the others.

So, as we start to hear rumors and guesses and numbers thrown around regarding a Cano extension over the next few months, I'd have a Rod Carew sort of image in mind: elite for two to three more years, but just a solid roster piece after that. You have to figure he'll want at least six years, so you'd need to figure on paying top dollar for 3-4 of those average-to-above-average years. That's easy enough to live with, as long as he gives more than fair value in those first three years, which is probably a reasonable expectation (FanGraphs has him as having been worth $25.4 million in 2011 and $35.4 in 2012, for starters). Plan to trade him some time in years 4-6, or just stick with him and, as is the goal with any large contract, figure on the "overpay" years as a necessary cost of getting those "underpay" years.

And at any rate, with the A-Rod contract finally expiring after what would be year four of this hypothetical Cano extension, a mild overpay to an aging-but-productive Cano would scarcely be felt.

Bill Parker is one of SBN's Designated Columnists.

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