The decision about whether to resign Robinson Cano (for how much money and how many years) will be one of the most difficult decisions to face Brian Cashman in the supposed “austerity budget” era. With Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in their late-30′s, Cano is probably the core of the Yankees’ lineup for the foreseeable future, along with the possibly-declining Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. Cano has a $15 million option for 2013, and is due to hit free agency after that season. He also changed agents to Scott Boras relatively recently, which gives the impression that he intends to hit free agency, and does not plan to give the Yankees a hometown discount.
There is not much precedent for what Cano should and will receive on the free agent market, because none of the other top second basemen in the league have made it to free agency. Chase Utley signed a 7-year $85 million extension in 2007 after 3 years of service time. In 2008 Dustin Pedroia signed a 6-year $40 million extension that bought out several free agent years as well as 3 years of arbitration, a contract that has looked like a steal given Pedroia’s strong performance both offensively. Ben Zobrist, probably not a great comparison because he plays multiple positions, was inked to a 3-year $30 million extension in 2010.
None of these 3 contracts are very useful as precedents because they were all given to players who were several years from free agency, and had not been signed to extensions previously. However, several recent contracts could provide more relevant comparisons. Dan Uggla, signed a 5-year $62 million extension with the Braves in 2011. Ian Kinsler just inked a 5-year $70 million extension with the Rangers, and Mike Axisa over at River Ave Blues has a nice comparison between Cano and Kinsler. Brandon Phillips and the Reds also just agreed to a 6-year $72 million extension.
So what does this mean for Cano? Honestly, not a whole lot. Since all of these contracts were signed prior to free agency, it is possible that the players did not receive their full market price. If Cano hits free agency, he almost certainly will blow away the Kinsler contract, both in guaranteed years and average annual value. This is not because Cano is better than Kinsler. As Axisa’s post demonstrates, they have been fairly similar players according to WAR, and they are about the same age (both born in 1982).
Instead it would be due to a combination of other factors: Scott Boras’ track record for record-setting free agent deals, multiple teams competing on the open market for Cano’s services, the Yankees’ reputation for being profligate spenders, and the likely paucity of second basemen of Cano’s caliber on the market to serve as a suitable replacement. By playing in New York all these years, Cano may have also developed a reputation as a superstar that is somewhat out of line with his actual performance (relative to his peers).
The important question is how big and how long the new Cano contract will be. The precedent of recent signings such as Kinsler would suggest that Cano is not worth much more than $16-$17 million annually, accounting for some inflation due to free agency, but also taking into account the fact that Cano will be 31 when he hits the market. Since 2nd basemen historically don’t age well, we haven’t seen the $20+ million/year contracts for players over 30 that we have seen for other positions, such as starting pitchers (CC Sabathia), 3rd basemen (Alex Rodriguez), and 1st basemen (Albert Pujols). However, you can bet Scott Boras won’t see things this way.
The key for the Yankees in negotiating with Cano will be to define him as what he is: a top 5 second baseman in the league, rather than a what he is not: a generational player who deserves superstar money. This may lead to some acrimonious negotiations, but the Yankees will have to toughen up if they are serious about keeping to the austerity budget, and every dollar will matter. Cano will certainly be looking for a contract that makes him the highest paid second baseman in the game, but hopefully the Yankees can accomplish that without giving out a contract that will tie their hands going forward.
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