Robinson Cano is entering his last year under the Yankees' control, and we've already seen reports that the organization has uncharacteristically broached the subject of a long term contract extension with the player and his super-agent, Scott Boras. Whether you like him or not, it is hard to argue that Boras isn't the best player agent in the business; and one way or another, he consistently garners full market rate for his clients' services.
Personally, I have no problem with that. If we're going to function in a capitalist system that supposedly purports the ideals of a free market system, then we're also going to have to accept that baseball players deserve their salaries regardless of the amount or relative degree it exceeds everyone else's meager offerings.
In fact, the reality is that players don't actually receive their true full market value since MLB is not a free market system, and the players have to spend a considerable portion of their careers under an agreement that is designed to restrict their pay relative to their actual value. Which is why I find it so fascinating that Robinson Cano is close to reaching the threshold of becoming one of the rare few players that both play well enough, and long enough, to garner such a massive reward as all indications are that Cano is about to become the next 200 million dollar man.
Let's be clear here, this club is the most exclusive one in baseball, as Cano would be just the fifth player in history to sign one: Alex Rodriguez twice, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder. Just how amazing is this?
Cano played his first game in the majors in 2005 at about 22 and ½ years of age. He had started in the Yankees Gulf Coast affiliate in 2001 after having been signed as an international free agent. Cano had four full seasons in the minors before starting his big league career when he came in to spell (save?) the Yankees at second base from having to watch Tony Womack play the keystone.
For those who criticize the decision making process of the Yankees front office, it's a contract like Tony Womack's that makes for prime exhibits. To be fair, there were reports that suggested Brian Cashman did not want to strike such a deal and preferred the only recently aged Miguel Cairo; not that that would have proved any better of a call. Who made the final decision and why is of little consequence here, but even at the time of the announcement it seemed like a deal destined for failure.
At the beginning of 2005, Tony Womack was actually coming off of his career year by a long shot at age 34. In 145 games, he produced 3.0 WAR for the St. Louis Cardinals, which was 2.8 points higher than his next best season three years earlier for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was at best a light hitting, slightly below league average OBP guy, who could steal some bags, but wasn't particularly adept defensively either. Womack had already played over 1,000 games in the major leagues, so there was no reason to take his age 34 season with the Cardinals and assume there was a new ball player there.
Entering his age 35 season though, for some reason, the Yankee brass thought it a good idea to give a slightly below average replacement level player a two-year contract to fill a position that did not seem to have a permanent answer since the trade of Alfonso Soriano to Texas for A-Rod. It was an unrealistic expectation to place on Tony Womack, and smacked of the kind of horrible free agent moves that George Steinbrenner committed on a regular basis before Fay Vincent saved us by banishing him and allowing Gene Michael and Buck Showalter to resurrect the floundering organization.
The fact that Womack would be viewed as a disappointment was fairly obvious to us casual observers at the time of the announcement, and I recall often discussing the issue with fellow Yankee fans before the season started. No one expected it to work out, and as a result, almost everyone came to the same conclusion: Why bother signing another replacement level player for two years when you could just let your Triple-A second baseman play the position and see if he develops into a legitimate major leaguer? Why not let the kid play?
By May of 2005 that kid got his shot, and by June there were articles already coming out discussing Womack's diminished role in the outfield and the need for a trade to get him somewhere he could do something useful. That kid, of course, was Robinson Cano, but to be clear, we didn't know his name, or at least couldn't remember it most of the time.
The Yankees farm system was pretty bleak during those years, since it was mostly used as a source of fodder for filling the gaps during the seemingly endless and inevitable playoff pushes. Entering the 2005 season, the Yankees had only one player on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list: #36 Eric Duncan. Duncan wound up playing over 1,000 professional games. Unfortunately, none of them were in the big show.
Cano was actually listed as the Yankees #2 prospect entering that 2005 season, but through four years of minor league play he never cracked BA's top 100 prospect list. Now we're looking at a man who soon may be only the fifth person in history to crack the 200 million dollar contract threshold. How did this happen?
It's always going to seem odd discussing prospects and surprising developments after having watched the historic events of 2012, and while there are always some players who seemingly come out of nowhere to provide key contributions to championship winning teams, the question that has been buzzing around in my head is how rare is it for someone like Robinson Cano to develop into the kind of elite level player that he is today?
I mean, I didn't really know who he was before 2005 and I paid attention to this stuff! You don't get one of the top 10 richest contracts in history, unless someone thinks you're going to be an eventual Hall of Fame caliber player. So I pulled together a list of the current and recently retired fielding players whom have amassed a significant amount of total WAR.
In order to weed out the consistently good but never elite players, I sorted the list by WAR 7, which is each player's peak 7 years of WAR, and culled the list down to the top 30 players. I kept the list to current or recently retired players, because I want to see how many players have been able to attain that elite status without ever having been listed on BA's Top 100 prospects during this period of vastly expanding information flow easily accessible to even the most casual of fans. The other columns on this chart show Jay Jaffe's JAWS ranking by primary position, with total games played, total WAR accumulated, WAR 7, and the player's peak ranking on BA's top 100.
As you can see, Cano is one of only three players on this list to never have reached that status of one of BA's top 100 prospects. So it turns out there was a good reason why I didn't know of anyone who had picked up Cano in one of their roto minor league drafts back then. The only other two players who didn't crack the top 100 list were Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday.
Giambi was drafted in the second round, 58th overall, in 1992. It doesn't look like it was his expectations that kept him off the list, but rather his other issues that impacted his playing time during his minor league career, as he peaked at 313 at bats in High-A ball in 1993. Despite the lack of playing time, Giambi got the call in 1995. Holliday looks to be more of the mystery. Drafted in the seventh round, Holliday spent seven seasons in the minors vacillating on BA's Rockies prospect depth chart from #4 in 1998, all the way down to #16 in 2002.
Neither of those two have played one of the more important defensive positions up the middle of the field. Bottom line, it is really rare for an elite level player to fly in this low under the radar. Remember, Cano had four years in the minors for the mainstream prospect hounds to pick up his scent as blossoming into the ball player who is this close to 200 million dollars.
Cano also isn't done. Entering his age 30 season, Cano has a good chance of materially improving on his WAR 7 total. Five years ago, Cano followed his breakout 2007 campaign with a dud in 2008 producing a pedestrian (0.2) WAR. The last four years he's averaged just over 6 WAR with his high water mark so far of 8.2 last year.
If he's able to stay healthy and produce at that same average rate over the next three years, then Cano is going to reach up into the top 10 of the above list with a mid-40's showing for his WAR 7. No one who reaches these elite levels can be considered expected, but the degree of relative obscurity in which Cano has risen still amazes me.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence to the degree of his unanticipated ascension is to ask the rhetorical question: what would the Yankees have looked like the last few years if Cano had not developed into the middle of the order elite second baseman that he is today?