clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #25 Robinson Canó

Robbie electrified the Bronx faithful with his sweet swing and smooth glovework at the keystone.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees - Game 2 Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Full Name: Robinson José Canó Mercedes
Position: Second Base
Born: October 22, 1982 (San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic)
Yankee Years: 2005-13
Primary number: 24
Yankee statistics: 1,374 G, 204 HR, 799 R, 822 RBI, .309/.355/.504, 126 wRC+, 126 OPS+, 44.4 rWAR, 35.8 fWAR

Biography

Robinson “Robbie” Canó spent nine seasons in New York, dontcha know, with one of the most beautiful left-handed swings anyone is likely to ever see. Outside of a down season in 2008, Canó never finished a campaign with a batting average below the .297 mark he put up as a rookie in 2005, going on to hit at least .300 seven times in pinstripes.

By the time he left in free agency for a monster deal with the Seattle Mariners, Canó had made five All-Star games, finished in the top-six of MVP voting every season from 2010 through 2013, won two Gold Gloves at second base, and played in at least 159 games every year from 2007 through 2013.

Canó’s post-Yankee tenure has been marred by a pair of performance-enhancing drug violations, and he last appeared in a big-league game with the Atlanta Braves on July 27, 2022. The cloud that now hangs over him will likely cost him a shot at the Hall of Fame. Absent the PED issues, his counting stats (2,639 hits, 68.1 rWAR, 335 HR, and 1,306 RBI) and rate stats (.301 career batting average, .839 OPS, and 124 wRC+) would likely give him a legitimate shot at induction, but he remains a terrific all-time Yankee.

Early Life

Canó was born in late October of 1982, in the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. Like many others on this list, the game was in Robbie’s blood. His father José made it to The Show in 1989 and pitched for the Houston Astros. Though Canó spent the majority of his childhood in the Dominican, he did relocate to New Jersey for three years before moving back to the Dominican. There, he finished his high school career playing for San Pedro Apostol High School.

After Canó graduated, the Yankees came calling. The club opened the checkbook and he inked a deal that included a $100,000 signing bonus.

New York Yankees Photo Day Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Gordon Blakely, who went on to become a special adviser to GM Brian Cashman, was the one to sign the precocious Canó. Blakely remembered his “uncanny balance at the plate, the way the ball always seemed to hit the sweet spot of the bat. Canó rarely swung and missed, and the game seemed to come easily to him.”

Road to the Show

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the teenage Canó, however. He debuted at Rookie ball as an 18-year-old in 2001 and struggled greatly at the dish. Former Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long remembered Canó as an extremely skinny youth with subpar strike zone judgement. Worse, his habit of taking at-bats into the field with him meant he was prone to defensive lapses.

But by 2004, there were signs that Canó had a bright future in front of him. That summer, he was selected to represent the Yankees at his second consecutive All-Star Futures Game. Then 21, Robbie was in the middle of his best minor league season to date, posting a .796 OPS with 52 extra-base hits between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Columbus.

All-Star Futures game
Canó at the 2004 Futures Game
Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images

Not everyone was sold on Canó as a future big leaguer, however. Baseball Prospectus wrote about him that year: “His age and the organizational affection for him mark Canó as a prospect, but there’s not much here… His prospect status is almost entirely a scouting thing, where they like the way he looks at the plate and project that he’ll fill out his six-foot frame with time. That might happen, but for now, Canó looks like he needs at least one full season in Double-A and lots of improvement. Trade bait.”

Baseball America was more bullish heading into the 2005 campaign. They noted Canó’s excellent arm (a 65 on the 20-80 scale) and expressed faith in his hit tool, thanks to his bat speed and fluid swing that enabled him to hit velocity. At the dish, BA remarked on his improving plate discipline but remarked on his struggles against left-handed pitching to that point.

“The Best Deal the Yankees Never Made”

It’s probably not fair to describe the young second baseman as “trade bait,” but Canó was definitely a repeated near-miss, as his name came up in several prospective deals before and during the 2004 campaign.

In February, New York offered Canó in the deal that sent Alfonso Soriano to the Texas Rangers for Alex Rodriguez. Texas opted instead for infielder Joaquín Árias — narrow escape No. 1. Then in June, the Yankees briefly moved Canó to the hot corner to showcase him to Kansas City in an effort to obtain Carlos Beltrán. New York dangled Canó and catcher Dioner Navarro, but KC decided to send Beltrán to the Astros instead. Another near-miss.

Finally, the Yankees were ready to give Arizona any prospect the D’Backs wanted in a deal that would send Hall of Famer Randy Johnson to the Bronx. A Diamondbacks scout recommended Canó, but the Arizona brain trust opted to keep Johnson until the winter. Three different deals, but somehow Canó remained with the Yankee organization. As an aside, I assume not many players can say they were linked to three different Hall of Fame talents in trade rumors in a matter of months.

Bronx Debut

Robbie came out of the gates with his hair on fire in 2005. Now playing at Triple-A, Canó put together a .942 OPS, with 36 hits in 24 games. In the Bronx meanwhile, all was not well. At second base, newly-signed veteran Tony Womack was scuffling, with a .659 OPS through May 2nd. As a whole, the Yankees were off to an awful start. Their 11-15 start had them 6.5 games back of first-place Baltimore. So on May 3rd, the Yankees called Canó up to join the mini-youth movement alongside Chien-Ming Wang.

Initially, Robbie scuffled. Although he put together a multi-hit game in only his second appearance for the Yankees, through his first seven games in pinstripes, Canó sported an .087 batting average (2-for-23), with nary a walk or an extra-base hit to be found.

Canó responded as well as anyone could have hoped to his first taste of adversity in the majors, thanks in part to working with Yankee hitting coach Don Mattingly. Donnie Baseball counseled the young lefty to focus on making hard contact. “Don’t just put the ball in play,” skipper Joe Torre recalled Mattingly saying. “He’s [Canó] really taken that advice. Even with two strikes, he doesn’t cut down his swing.”

Five consecutive multi-hit games led to an eight-game hitting streak and after two weeks, Robbie was hitting .316. On May 24th, he got off the schneid, with his first big league dinger. For the first of what seemed like hundreds of times, Canó turned on an inside pitch from a southpaw, beating them to the spot. And on this occasion, his moonshot landed in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium.

When the dust settled on his rookie season, Canó had authored a .297 batting average with 34 doubles and 14 homers, showing the bat-to-ball skills that would only get better as his career progressed. He played well in his first postseason that fall, though the Yankees lost a hard-fought series to the Angels. Canó received four first-place votes in that year’s AL Rookie of the Year voting and finished second to Oakland closer Huston Street.

Growth is not Linear

From 2006-07, Canó continued to improve and, though still in his early 20s, looked likely to someday need to prepare a Hall of Fame induction speech. As a sophomore, he battled eventual winner Joe Mauer and captain Derek Jeter for the batting title all summer, ultimately hitting .342 for the Yanks and making his first All-Star Game appearance. In ’07, he played in 160 games and finished with an .841 OPS and 6.7 rWAR thanks to a stunning 2.8 dWAR that lead the American League. Canó had worked diligently with infield coach Larry Bowa to improve his glovework, and the results were glowing.

Although the Yankees got bounced in the ALDS in ’07 for the third straight time in Canó’s young career, it wasn’t through any fault of their young second baseman in the latter year. He rebounded from a sluggish 2006 showing vs. Detroit by going 5-for-15 with a pair of home runs against Cleveland. It was Robbie’s best fall performance as a Yankee until 2010.

Robbie’s first three seasons in the bigs were enough for New York to reward him with a rare contract extension. In January 2008, the Yanks inked him to a four-year pact, with two team options. All told, if the club exercised the options, Canó would be in pinstripes through the 2013 campaign. It turned out to be a genius move.

By the time early May ’08 rolled around though, the early returns on investment were not great. Through May 6th, Canó’s batting average (.154), slugging percentage (.256) and on-base percentage (.214) were all in the bottom four of qualified major league hitters. New York knew he would not remain that bad. Jeter, Long, and new skipper Joe Girardi (among others) all advised Canó and remained confident the young slugger would come out of his funk.

And eventually, he did. In the second half of ’08, Canó batted .307 with an .815 OPS, highlighted by a bases-loaded, walk-off single against Baltimore on September 20th.

But his putrid start to the campaign dragged his overall numbers down and ’08 was easily his worst season as a Yankee. After a lackadaisical play in the field in mid-September, Girardi even pulled Canó from a game, too. To add insult to insult, the Yanks also missed the playoffs, marking the first time in Robbie’s MLB career that he was sitting at home during the postseason.

Robinson Prime

We all know how the ’09 season ended, considering it remains the most recent Yankee championship. While that would be more the Postseason of A-Rod and Godzilla than Canó, his regular season did rather convincingly showed that ’08 was an aberration.

Canó led the Junior Circuit with 161 games played. In those contests, he hit .320 with 48 doubles and 25 bombs while proving his durability with an AL-high 161 games played. For the first time in Canó’s career, he eclipsed 200 base hits in a season, the first of back-to-back 200-knock seasons. In late August, amid a pouring rain in the Bronx, he stepped to the dish with two on in a tied game in the 10th inning. Yet again, he beat a southpaw to the spot inside:

A majestic three-run bomb landed in the Yankee Stadium bleachers and Robbie rounded the bases with his infectious grin on full display.

Outside of the ALCS, it was a relatively quiet October for Canó, though the baseball gods granted him the opportunity to record the final out of New York’s 27th World Series title when Mariano Rivera induced a weak grounder from the Phillies’ Shane Victorino.

And just on the off chance anyone was worried about Robbie, from 2010 onward he was an absolute superstar. He averaged 7.2 rWAR per season, won four consecutive Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves, and finished no worse than sixth in MVP voting at any point. The Yankees failed in their repeat bid in 2010, but it was through no fault of Robbie’s — he hit .343/.361/.771 in total, plus four homers in the ALCS loss to Texas. The Rangers won the pennant despite Canó doing just about everything he could to stop it.

Robbie was the closest thing to a 21st-century iron man, missing a total of eight games in four years. In 2011, he had a career-best 118 RBI. That year, he also made it clear that he could launch long balls with anyone. During that year’s Home Run Derby, Robbie crushed 32 bombs to walk away as that year’s champion, besting Red Sox masher Adrián González for the honors.

Canó posted a 1.057 OPS in five games against the Tigers that October, but it was to no avail. Detroit dispatched New York and moved on to the ALCS.

In 2012, Canó set a then-career-high with 33 home runs. In 2010, he was worth 2.2 dWAR in the field. In 2012, another 1.9. For four years, it is difficult to imagine he could have been any better on either side of the ball.

The End of an Era

As 2013 approached, so did free agency. That spring, Canó made a move that at the time looked like it was signaling he would spend his entire career in the Bronx. The Yankees were again ready to make an exception for Robbie and do an extension before he hit the open market. In February, the Yankees confirmed they had been in contact with Scott Boras, then Canó’s agent.

Shortly after, Robbie parted ways with Boras and signed on with a new agency headed by media icon and Yankee fan Jay-Z. For a myriad of reasons, not least Boras’ history of taking clients to free agency instead of signing extensions, hope sprung eternal that Robbie Canó would be a Forever Yankee. And while the injury-riddled team around him fell out of postseason contention, he kept his quality among the very best in baseball.

After winning the World Baseball Classic MVP with the Dominican champions, Canó posted a .314/.383/.516 showing in New York, notching his fourth season out of five with an OPS+ over 140 and a fifth-place MVP finish. At the time, he was just the 16th player in Yankees history to pass the 200-homer threshold with the team.

Of course, a new contract was not meant to be. In early December 2013, news leaked out that the Seattle Mariners had blown Robbie’s doors off with a 10-year offer that exceeded $230 million. Canó’s representatives called the Yankees to give them a chance to match but, even knowing it would not be enough to keep him, Brian Cashman would not budge from his seven-year, $175 million offer.

New York, perhaps with Alex Rodriguez’s post-2007 contract extension in mind, was not going to give Robbie, who had just played his age-30 season, a 10-year deal. The club appealed to his desire to stay in New York and at Yankee Stadium, but in the end, it’s hard to compete with $65 million extra.

Seattle Mariners Introduce Robinson Cano Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Yankees instead turned to the likes of Brian Roberts and later Stephen Drew, missing the playoffs in 2014.

Post-Yankee Tenure

Unsurprisingly, Canó’s first four seasons in Seattle lived up to the billing, even if the M’s weren’t quite a good enough squad to reach October. Robbie averaged 5.0 rWAR per year for the M’s, giving them a fearsome bat in the middle of their lineup. He earned three more All-Star nods and notched two top-eight AL MVP finishes while winning All-Star MVP honors in 2017. He also recorded his 2,000th career hit back in September 2015, setting the table for a 3,000th-hit chase that unfortunately never came to pass.

In mid-May 2018, Canó was suspended 80 games for testing positive for a banned substance. He denied taking any performance-enhancing drug, but the damage was done. The Hall of Fame chatter vanished. 2018 was Canó’s final season in Seattle and the M’s dealt him and closer Edwin Díaz to the Mets prior to the 2019 campaign in a package highlighted by Jarred Kelenic.

After a mediocre 2019, Canó looked like he was in vintage form in the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season, hitting .316 with an .896 OPS and a 142 wRC+. Shortly after the season though, MLB suspended him for the entire 2021 season, this time for the performance-enhancing drug stanozolol.

Canó was back with the Mets to begin the 2022 season, but they released him in May. He had brief stints with Padres and Braves, but Atlanta granted his free agency in August 2022, and he has not appeared in the major leagues since. Canó is still playing though, most recently popping up in Dubai during a showcase for a planned new league in 2024, Baseball United.

Even all these years later, that swing connecting for an extra-base hit is a thing of beauty.

Robbie sits ninth all-time on the Yankee batting average list, ahead of Don Mattingly. Every name ahead of him is in the Hall of Fame. He’s 8th in doubles, 12th in SLG, 15th in extra-base hits, and 17th in OPS. The names ahead of him on all these leaderboards are a veritable “who’s who” of Yankee legends and icons.

Canó’s personal trophy case is laden with Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, All-Star Game nods, and high MVP finishes. And he’s the rare contemporary home-grown Yankee, signing with the organization, matriculating through the farm, and putting his dazzling talents on display in the Bronx.

His departure from New York sucked, though I admittedly wasn’t thrilled at the idea of New York dropping a 10-year contract on a second baseman on the wrong side of 30. Canó’s post-Yankee tenure, marred by multiple PED issues, has inarguably tarnished his legacy. But while he was in pinstripes, he was a pleasure to watch at the plate and in the field. Robbie turning on the inside pitch and crushing it to right field remains to this day one of my favorite Yankee highlights.

Staff rank: 23
Community rank: 47
Stats rank: 26
2013 rank: 24

References

Baseball Prospectus

Baseball-Reference

Bierman, Fred. “Baseball: Minor League Report; Future Is Now For Top 4 Picks.The New York Times. June 27, 2004.

Borzi, Pat. “As New ‘Kid’ on the Block, Cano Impresses.The New York Times. May 17, 2005.

FanGraphs

Johns, Greg. “Cano suspended 80 games for violation of drug policy.MLB. May 15, 2018.

Kepner, Tyler. “Baseball: Yankees Notebook; Diamondbacks Scout Praises Prospects.The New York Times. July 26, 2004.

Kepner, Tyler. “His Average Down, Canó Tries to Keep His Chin Up.The New York Times. May 6, 2008.

Kepner, Tyler. “Now Batting, the Best Deal the Yankees Never Made.The New York Times. March 2, 2008.

Kepner, Tyler. “Yanks and Canó Agree on Deal.” The New York Times. January 26, 2008.

Martin, Dan. “Cano Benched for Lack of Hustle.” New York Post. September 14, 2008.

Matthews, Wallace. “Yanks talked deal with Cano’s agent.ESPN. February 20, 2013.

Passan, Jeff. “New York Mets’ Robinson Cano banned for 2021 MLB season because of PED.ESPN. November 18, 2020.

Waldstein, David. “Cano Fires Agent and Signs With Jay-Z’s Agency.The New York Times. April 2, 2013.

Waldstein, David. “Cano Said to Leave for Mariners; Beltran Reportedly Heads to Yanks.The New York Times. December 6, 2013.

Previously on the Top 100

26. Charlie Keller
Full list to date