The Yankees will find themselves in an unfamiliar position tonight: that of welcoming back a departed star who left New York voluntarily. Sure the team has lost free agents before - Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson have gone on their way over the past couple of seasons and Tino Martinez's pinstriped career came to a premature end back in 2001. But the team was never serious about retaining any of those guys, either because it felt they weren't worth major multi-year deals or because it had their eye on a bigger prize. The Yankees did want Robinson Cano back, at least enough to offer him a seven-year deal worth $175 million. The fact that he's not still around puts the all-star second baseman in a strange place in New York baseball history.
To hate Cano for leaving is both hypocritical and silly. Ever since free agency began in the 1970s, the Yankees have been adding players for all the same reasons they lost this one. From Catfish to Reggie, Winfield to Mussina, Giambi to Teixeira, Ellsbury and plenty of others, the Steinbrenners have always plucked players in their primes from other clubs for more years and more money. The fact that they got beat at their own game in Cano's case doesn't make him a bad guy or a "trader" as some Red Sox fans would put it. Cano's decision to leave wasn't personal or mean-spirited. He and his rap mogul agent played the system the same way the Yankees have played it for forty years.
Cano's new duds shouldn't cloud the fact that his nine-year run as a Yankee was nothing but incredible, placing him in a class among the very best second basemen in team history. Never considered a top prospect until his final year in the minors, Cano hit .309/.355/.504 in pinstripes, belting 204 home runs and accumulating an fWAR of 37.1. He took things to another level in 2010, his age 27 season, and put up four straight years with a wRC+ of 134 or better, finishing in the top six in the MVP race four straight times. Cano worked hard to transform his once porous defense into an asset and during his last seven years in New York, he never missed more than two games. Though he's been knocked for a "lack of hustle" by some detractors, there's no rational means by which to view Cano as anything but an elite player who shows up ready to go just about every single day. The Yankees will be reminded many times over the next decade that that's not an easy thing to find.
How much have the Yankees really missed Cano this season? April's been a gentler month in the Bronx than it has been in the Pacific northwest. Heading into tonight's game, the Mariners have the second-worst record in the AL at 10-14. They're out of last place in their division only due to the good fortune of sharing it with the Houston Astros. Cano hasn't really done much to change things. While his .301 batting average and his .353 OBP aren't far from career norms, he has one home run in 102 at bats and is slugging .387 with an ISO of .086. Cano's power-outage has been particularly prevalent in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, where he's managed just two extra base hits, both doubles, in eleven games. As good as he is, Cano is one man and one man can't reverse the fortunes of a franchise that's been mired in irrelevance and incompetence for most of its history. As he begins to feel fans' frustration surrounding all that, Robbie may wonder if all that extra cash was really worth what he's gotten himself into.
Things might not be looking great for Cano so far, but the Yankees haven't exactly found a way to replace him. A hodgepodge group of second basemen, led by the ancient Brian Roberts, are hitting .238/.350/.357 and the Yankees as a whole are in the middle of the pack among AL teams in runs per game (4.28 - ninth), OBP (.327 - eighth) and slugging (.406 - sixth). Out of the third spot in the lineup, where Cano batted 110 times in 2013, Yankee hitters have sputtered to a triple-slash line of .252/.284/.359. Sitting in first place and outperforming their Pythagorean W-L record by three wins so far has masked some of their deficiencies, but this is an offense that would look a whole lot better with Cano in its midst. Its not hard to understand why the Yankees were reluctant to sign a player to a ten-year deal that carries him into his forties - again, the rightness or wrongness of that decision doesn't do much to fill the gaping void on the field that Cano's departure has left.
From the way things look so far, the Yankees and Cano miss each other - badly. Cano's found it more difficult to mash away from Yankee Stadium and the protection he was usually afforded by a deep New York order, and the Yankees are lacking the middle-of-the-lineup anchor that Cano represented for the past several seasons. No matter who you choose to blame for the way Cano's Yankee tenure ended, or what you think of the $240 million deal he snagged from Seattle, it won't be easy to watch him take the field tonight in Mariner green.
For those of you who'll be at the Stadium, here are a few useful tips for coping. Don't bring a sign calling Cano a sellout or a traitor (even if you spell it right). Don't throw dollar bills on the field like Seattle fans did when Alex Rodriguez returned as a Texas Ranger. Most of all, please don't boo when Cano is announced or comes to the plate or touches the ball - understand that baseball is a business and give him the credit he deserves for his nine great years as a Yankee.