Which teams are most likely to pursue Robinson Cano in free agency?

Jim McIsaac

Which teams will give the Yankees the toughest challenge in signing Robinson Cano this winter?

With reports surfacing that the Yankees and their All-Star second baseman are as far as three years and $144 million apart in contract negotiations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Robinson Cano’s free agency will amount to a lengthy nail-biting, stomach-churning saga. Cano won’t get the ten-year, $305 million mega deal he’s supposedly asking for early in the process, or anything close to it, but he won’t be an easy re-sign. His price tag, in the end, will be something cringe-worthy for whoever ultimately pays it.

In some ways, this year isn’t the most ideal time for Cano to be a free agent. Many of baseball’s traditional big spenders are set with expensive long term deals at second base. The Red Sox have Dustin Pedroia locked up through pretty much the end of his career, the Rangers owe Ian Kinsler $61 million and have Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings and the Phillies recently re-upped Chase Utley. The Mets don’t look like they’re planning to spend $200 million on anyone anytime soon, and the Tigers, who already posted a franchise-record $149 million payroll in 2013, need to save up to hold on to Miguel Cabrera, whose deal expires in two more years.

Still, Cano is going to come out of this off-season a much wealthier man. He’s the crown jewel of an otherwise unimpressive stock of free agents and unfortunately for the Yankees, it will only take one interested party to drive up the bidding and possibly snatch the soon-to-be 31-year-old away. Here are a few possibilities for who that team might be:

San Francisco Giants

Between Barry Zito, Tim Lincecum, Hunter Pence, Ryan Vogelsong and Javier Lopez alone, the Giants have as much $65 million in salary coming off the books this winter, assuming they decline Zito’s and Vogelsong’s 2014 options. That would be more than enough to sign Cano and still improve a pitching staff that’s down to two viable starters in Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.

Beyond that, the Giants' major players are locked up long-term for reasonable rates. Cain, Bumgarner and Buster Posey are all under team control through 2018 at least, putting the disappointing Giants in an ideal position to improve an offense that scored just 3.85 runs per game, fifth worst in the National League. With only a tradeable Marco Scutaro blocking him at second base, Cano, who can stay productive without hitting that many home runs, would be a nice fit in San Francisco in a spacious AT&T Park.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Dodgers brass has been putting out word over the past couple of months that the wild spending spree that brought them Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ricky Nolasco and Michael Young in the course of barely over a year, will not continue into 2014. If the Dodgers complete their long-rumored signing of Cuban middle-infielder Alexander Guerrero, that, too, would seemingly take them out of the Cano market with Ramirez already in place at short.

Logically, Los Angeles doesn’t seem like a match for Cano considering all they’ve already spent, and that Clayton Kershaw is a good bet to get $30 million per year or more once he reaches free agency in 2015. But no one really knows just how much money the Dodgers’ new owners actually have to work with. Despite having over $165 million already committed to their 2014 payroll, not including the lofty arbitration award due to Kershaw, the Dodgers are shedding some cumbersome salaries in Ted Lilly and Matt Guerrier, and they’ll be rid of Beckett’s dead money a year later. Their second base OPS was .673 this season, and they’ll absolutely be looking to improve somehow if the postseason ends in disappointment.

Chicago Cubs

The last time the Cubs signed a former Yankee second-baseman to an eight-year contract, it worked out badly enough that they ended up dealing him off, back to the Yankees, ironically enough, and eating most of his remaining salary. But unlike Alfonso Soriano, Cano is actually still a second baseman and a good one at that. The Cubs got just a .578 OPS from the position last year en route to their 3.77 runs scored per game, the second worst total in the National League.

The Cubs have only $55 million committed to 2014 thus far, including the $14 million they’re paying Soriano to play for the Yankees. They’ve had payrolls as high as $144 million in the past, so clearly there’s some wiggle room there. While Chicago’s more than one player away from contention, Cano would be an offensive centerpiece to build around for the next few years – a centerpiece they currently don’t have. It’s been some time since the Cubs made a splash in free agency. Will this be the year?

Los Angeles Angels

The Angels have contract commitments on their books that make current Yankee deals look team-friendly. In 2017, for example, they’ll pay a 36-year-old Josh Hamilton and a 37-year-old Albert Pujols a combined $58.4 million – those guys looked shot this year at 32 and 33. Adding a then-34-year-old Robinson Cano to that mix at up to $25 mil per season would be absolute insanity.

But insanity seems to be the overriding philosophy by which Arte Moreno has run his team the past couple of years as he/s desperately tried to keep up with the free-spending Dodgers. Pitching, more than hitting is what’s led the Angels to a second straight third place finish in the AL West, but putting Cano and Mike Trout in a lineup together would be flat-out fear-inspiring, while incumbent second-baseman Howie Kendrick, with two years and under $20 million left on his contract, would make a useful chip in acquiring some of the former. Trout will remain relatively cheap for a few more years, and the Angels $137 million 2013 payroll was actually the lowest it’s been since 2010.

Seattle Mariners


The Mariners would be an extreme dark horse to sign Cano. He’d easily be the most significant free agent acquisition in team history, and his contract would likely top the seven-year, $175 million extension signed by Felix Hernandez. But before King Felix agreed to his deal, you'd have to think that someone somewhere told him the team would try and win during the life of it. With just $33 million owed to five players in 2014, for a team that hasn’t had a payroll lower than $80 million since 2001, one thing the M’s certainly have plenty of is flexibility.

***

It’s difficult to predict exactly how much money and how many years Cano will ultimately receive, since baseball contract negotiations have been known to sometimes spiral out of control. No one really believed Alex Rodriguez could get $250 million back in 2001 – or that he could top it seven years later, but it happened, both times. Once A-Rod’s pact with the Yankees became a debacle by season four, no one expected teams to go ten years for a 30-plus free agent again, but Albert Pujols fielded three separate decade-long offers in the off-season of 2011.

Realistically, Cano’s number should wind up somewhere in the vicinity of the eight years and $184 million that Joe Mauer got from the Twins in 2010 and the nine-year, $212 million agreement that Prince Fielder snagged from the Tigers a year later. For anything in that range, the Yankees need to grin and bear it rather than facing the void that would come with their second baseman’s departure. But could the price get higher? When there are baseball owners and money involved, you never know.

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