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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: Yankees extend Robinson Canó

The Yankees signed Canó to an extension thinking they’d locked in a quality hitter through his 20’s. What they saw instead was a superstar.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

After the 2008 season, the Yankees made a number of free agent splashes, at least one of which we’ll profile later in this series. The signings of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and AJ Burnett reshaped the team and wrenched open a window that looked like it could have been closing, setting up a period of excellence that saw a World Series title and 390 regular season wins between 2009 and 2012.

However, just before that 2008 campaign, the Yankees made a move that was arguably just as important to their success around the turn of the decade. In late January, the Yankees extended young second baseman Robinson Canó, agreeing to terms on a contract that guaranteed Cano’s salary for the next four seasons, with team options for two additional years. Neither player nor team likely could have predicted the level of play Cano would hit over those six seasons.

Contract details: Four-years, $30 million, with a fifth-year team option for $13 million, and a sixth-year option for $14 million

Stats over length of contract (2008-13): 960 G .307/.359/.511, 259 2B, 156 HR, 129 OPS+, 33.7 rWAR, four-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, two-time Gold Glover

As good as he would become, any discussion of Canó’s extension has to start with how poorly it started. Expectations were high for the 25-year-old entering 2008, as he was riding a three-year stretch in which he had established himself as a special talent on the right side of the infield. He hit .314 between his age-22 to age-24 seasons, showcasing an elite hit tool that more than made up for his shaky plate discipline and middling power. Flashes of brilliance on defense made Canó’s overall skillset that much more exciting.

But upon locking in life-changing money, Canó struggled for the first time in his career. After averaging a 117 OPS+ for three years, Canó posted a miserable 81 OPS+ across a full 159-game campaign. His triple slash of .271/.305/.410 showcased career lows in every category. Even advanced defensive metrics soured in their evaluations of his glove. Canó’s disappointing 2008 stood among the more prominent reasons that Yankee club missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

Thus the pressure was on for Canó in 2009 as he entered his prime, coming off his worst season and slated to hit fifth or sixth in the lineup behind the Yankees’ superstars. He responded with aplomb, rebounding for a .320/.352/.520 line and a career-high 25 homers, earning himself a smattering of down-ballot MVP votes. Much like near every member of the 2009 team, Canó did everything that was asked of him en route to the franchise’s 27th World Series title.

Had Canó settled in as an All-Star caliber contributor in the middle of the order, supporting the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Teixeira, the Yankees likely would have been happy. Instead, from there Canó ascended to a level few players can dream of. Cano submitted a stunning 2010 campaign, running a 141 OPS+, and setting another career high with 29 homers, totaling over 8 rWAR in the process. He came third in AL MVP voting, with a reasonable case for deserving to have finished even higher.

That essentially became Canó’s baseline through the peak of his career. He hardly regressed after that 2010 breakout, averaging a 142 OPS+, 29 homers, 76 extra-base hits, and 7.2 rWAR per season from 2010 to 2013. He made the All-Star team four consecutive times, and never finished lower than sixth in MVP voting. Canó was no longer a luxury in the Yankee order, an added problem for opposing pitchers to solve once they’d navigated the starrier names at the top of the lineup. Canó became the marquee player on the Bronx Bombers, their best overall position player and one of the very best in the entire game.

No player did more to propel the Yankees during that period. The extension the Yankees handed Canó ensured that he would not hit free agency after 2010, and instead was allowed to fully develop in pinstripes. Given the handful of holes in his offensive game early in his career (holes that were exploited in that down 2008 season), locking down Cano long-term came with at least a little risk at the time. The Yankees were massively rewarded for being willing to assume that bit of risk, as they watched a precocious young hitter morph into a superstar before their eyes.

Of course, the full legacy of Canó’s extension encompasses more than just his outstanding play. As a Yankee fan, it’s impossible to reflect on the Canó deal without one of two facts propping up: that the Yankees didn’t extend or re-sign him once more, and that the Yankees have so rarely found themselves willing to bet on their young players and lock them in long-term.

Canó’s time with the Mariners and Mets has been up and down, and his multiple PED suspensions cloud the picture. That said, Canó holds a career 126 OPS+ with the Yankees, and a 126 OPS+ with all other teams. He averaged 5.0 rWAR per 650 plate appearances with the Yankees, and 4.6 rWAR elsewhere. Drug blemishes aside, Canó’s onfield play has aged wonderfully, and the Yankees desperately missed his production in the middle part of the last decade.

Moreover, the Yankees recently had another chance to lock in an exemplary, homegrown hitter, but instead chose to let Aaron Judge progress to free agency. As Josh has opined, allowing Judge, the face of the Yankees and when healthy (a big if, admittedly) one of the best players on the planet, get to this point stands as an unforced error for this front office. The Yankees showed with the Canó extension that, with some enterprise and willingness to risk that an interesting player won’t pan out, it’s possible to lock in young talent and see them flourish. Not every extension will go as swimmingly as Canó’s, but their success there should motivate the Yankees to try and duplicate the feat on occasion.

All that said, while the after-effects of Canó’s extension may extend far, at the end of the day, his progression from potential impact hitter to All-Star to All-World is the key point. When he signed his extension, Cano was a talented young player. By the time the deal concluded, he had become a superstar, having authored a stretch of play through his 20s befitting of a Hall of Famer. It’s hard to make a move that works out much better than that.