Whether fans supported the move or not, Robinson Cano changed history on December 12, 2013 when he signed his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners. It seemed almost unfathomable that the New York Yankees of all teams would let their best young star walk in the prime of his career simply because they refused to pay him, even at a discount. Cano was not only a star; he played a premium position as well. Good second basemen are hard to come by, but the Yankees felt that they could capably fill the void.
Two years into the post-Cano era, the gamble appeared to be working as well as Krusty the Clown’s bet on the Washington Generals. Cano had an MVP-caliber 2014 and rebounded to a superlative 157 wRC+ in the second half of 2015 after a first half plagued by illness. Meanwhile, the Yankees invested the $198 million they could have used on Cano into free agent contracts for Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran.* They signed former Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts to take Cano’s spot in the infield, and then traded for veteran Stephen Drew at the trade deadline once it was clear that Roberts was a shell of his former self. Drew was also a nightmare down the stretch, and though the Yankees’ hopes for a rebound in 2015 proved fruitless.
Enter Starlin Castro. The Yankees decided on a new strategy for 2016, acquiring a younger player with more potential than the aging standbys. They sold high on pitcher Adam Warren, trading him alongside bench player Brendan Ryan for the Cubs shortstop. For his part, Drew had handled the transition from shortstop to second base, and they felt that Castro could do that too. In addition to adding Castro, they put the remaining four years and $38 million of his extension on their payroll.
There was plenty of excitement about adding Castro to the team. A 26-year-old instantly offered more intrigue than Roberts or Drew, and while he had struggled in 2015, he was already a three-time All-Star with 991 hits and 10.3 WAR on his resume. Castro’s first series in New York was a rousing success, as he went 7-for-12 with two doubles, two homers, and an eye-popping eight RBI (a franchise record seven in his first two games). That short homestand combined with an amusing video shot alongside double play partner Didi Gregorius created goodwill. Perhaps Castro was about to finally put the last couple years of second base woes to bed.
Well it has been all downhill for Castro ever since that first series. In the 90 games following that glimpse of hope, he has hit just .248/.285/.376, a .661 OPS that would be the worst in baseball among all 25 qualifying second basemen. While his defense has been fine, his plate discipline has been far too reminiscent of one of his Cubs mentors, Alfonso Soriano. Hacks at pitches diving far out of the strike zone have been his Achilles heel, and he doesn’t quite have prime Soriano’s power to make up for it. Castro’s walk rate is a mere 4.3% and perhaps most alarmingly, his numbers at the plate have just about fallen to Drew and Roberts levels.
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Additionally, Castro's overall .259/.294/.406, 84 wRC+ batting line is quite similar to the .265/.296/.375, 80 wRC+ he posted just last year in Chicago. He had an All-Star 2014, but 2013 resembled the past two seasons at .245/.284/.347 with a 74 wRC+. During the off-season, fans hoped that the Castro who surged down the stretch for the Cubs after switching over to second base was the one who would show up in pinstripes. They only got that guy for the opening series, and it has been all downhill ever since. His defense has been fine, but then again, Drew's defense was fine last year, too.
So where do the Yankees go from here? If it was any other big market team, I would wonder if they might consider other options at second base should his numbers remain stagnant through the rest of the season. However, Hal Steinbrenner is no doubt aware that the team owes him about $30 million through 2019 and he is not a fan of sunk costs, as they have already invested in Castro at the position. Unless they manage to trade him (or Chase Headley, which, though unlikely, would open up another possible position switch), he will be almost certainly be playing second for awhile longer.
Cano is, of course, raking in Seattle again with a season far closer to his 2014 than 2015. While Beltran and Ellsbury have had their share of highlights since joining in 2014 (particularly Beltran this year), the trade-off for Cano's near-equal price tag at the rumored eight-year, $200 million discount rate seems like it would have made more sense to pursue in hindsight. There would be other positions to fill, but as Roberts, Drew, and now Castro have proved, it is much harder to fill second base than an outfield spot.
The best fans can hope for is that Castro turns it around soon. If this is the man who will be covering second base for at least the next two and half seasons, then he simply has to hit better, or the team will suffer and the post-Cano void will loom larger by the day.
*Brian McCann was signed over a week before Cano turned down the Yankees’ seven-year, $175 million offer, and both Ellsbury and Beltran were inked to contracts at roughly the same time as Cano. So a reasonable separation can be made between McCann’s deal and the other contracts.
**Ranked by overall fWAR.