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Why a Yankees trade for Robinson Cano makes sense

The Yankees and Mariners quickly discussed a swap of Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury. Maybe the Yankees should pursue it harder.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The story of the Yankees and Robinson Cano is an old one. Like a strip of smooth dirt in the forest, this is a path that’s been hunted before. You might assume that because we’re dealing with mega-contracts and sabermetrics that this is a modern tale, but you’d be wrong. This one takes us back to a similar story, almost 2,000 years ago.

In that old story, a boy asks his father for his inheritance and then travels the world living lavishly, only to return destitute and lost, expecting to beg for another chance. To his surprise, his father welcomes him home with open arms and even celebrates his arrival. It’s a story about forgiveness, acceptance, and celebrating the good in a situation. It’s a story that closely relates to Cano’s: the return of the Prodigal (Robin)Son.

In December of 2013, Cano signed what was then the fourth largest contract in baseball history. The ten-year, $240 million deal from the Seattle Mariners was an easy choice over the Yankees’ offer of $175 million over seven years. Beyond the huge paycheck, the Mariners’ deal gave Cano comfort in the knowledge that he was signed through age 41 and wouldn’t have to negotiate a new contract in his mid-to-late thirties. It was an understandable decision, but for Yankee fans, it still hurt.

Cano started his career with the Yankees and the Bronx loved him. Naturally, it’s been tough watching his talent, style, and personality on the other coast, squandered away on a team who hasn’t made the playoffs in 17 years. To make matters worse, in 2018 he got busted for breaking the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and served an 80-game suspension. Though he’s not exactly destitute and lost, he now sits with a smudged reputation on a team with little championship promise.

Rumblings of trade talks between the Yankees and Mariners surfaced this week, making the return of the Prodigal (Robin)Son a real possibility. However, reports indicate that the proposed deal—a swap of Cano for Jacoby Ellsbury—may have fell through. The Yankees apparently asked the Mariners to kick in cash to help cover the remainder of Cano’s heavy contract and they refused. The Mariners moved on to discussions with the Mets and it seemed like it was for the best.

In its current state, the Yankees roster is in need of a few things: starting pitching, a replacement for Didi Gregorius at shortstop while he heals from Tommy John surgery, and some insurance at the corner infield spots. At face value, the addition of Cano doesn’t really fill the gaps. Sure, he could take over second base and move Gleyber Torres over to fill in for Didi, but thats a short term need and with the years left on his contract, Cano is a long term move.

The Jacoby Ellsbury deal has been terrible for the Yankees. He’s been plagued with injuries, hasn’t seen time on the field in over a year, and is still owed $42.28 million over the next two seasons, plus a $5 million buyout in 2021. When you look past the money, there’s also no path for Ellsbury as the Yankees already have an outfield bloated with talent. To put it simply, they’d love to move him off the roster.

Swapping Ellsbury’s useless mega-contract with an unnecessary one in Cano’s could make sense as they’re getting paid roughly the same amount per year and the Yankees could get more value from the latter. The issue, however, is that Ellsbury is off the books after 2020 with the buyout in the following season, whereas Cano is making $24 million per year through 2023, when he’ll be 40 years old. Contractually, if the Mariners aren’t willing to cough up the dough, this deal doesn’t seem fair for Brian Cashman.

That’s been the consensus so far in this rumored deal as the Mariners don’t seem willing to pay. But what if the Yankees made the deal anyway? What if they swapped $47.28 million dollars worth of packing peanuts for $120 million of something more useful? It might not be that bad of an idea.

Clearly, Cano can help the immediately need of a replacement for Didi. He’s also not exactly Stephen Drew; he’s an eight time All Star, a five time Silver Slugger, a two time Gold Glover, an All-Star Game MVP, a Home Run Derby winner, and a World Series Champion. With a player of that caliber in the lineup, Didi can take the time to heal properly. The Yankees wouldn’t miss a beat while he’s gone.

Cano can still produce big numbers, too. Over his last three seasons in Seattle, he swatted 72 home runs and batted to a 129 wRC+, amounting to 12.3 WAR while missing 80 games. He also spent 88 innings playing average first base for the Mariners when returning from his suspension. With his bat, average fielding at first is good enough for the Yankees. Providing infield and DH depth with that kind of production is a huge asset down the stretch when injuries can drag playoff-bound teams down.

He also makes sense from an intangibles perspective. Cano already knows the ins-and-outs of Yankee baseball. He came up through the system, spent nine years in pinstripes, and won a World Series in the Bronx. His easygoing, always-laughing personality would be a perfect fit for the clubhouse. He’d also add some needed veteran leadership as well as the ability to act as a mentor to the growing crop of young Dominican talent on the roster like Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Miguel Andujar, Domingo German, Albert Abreu, and Domingo Acevedo.

Unless the Mariners soften their position on the cash-kicker, this deal likely won’t happen. Contractually it may not make sense, but for a team with only two current players—Giancarlo Stanton and Aroldis Chapman—getting paid through 2021 and most of its big-time players not hitting free agency until 2023, maybe that’s a financial strain they can afford. Cano can bring a lot to the Yankees, even if he might start to drag along near age 40. At the end of the day, it’s the Yankees picking up the tab and the fans who get to act like the father welcoming home their Prodigal (Robin)Son.

Check please.