In late April of 2005, I was walking through Manhattan's Upper West Side when I overheard a conversation between two men. The first said, "How about that new Yankee second baseman. He looks great!" The second man, who was a doorman in a large apartment building responded "I'd trade him tomorrow for Roger Clemens if I could." I resisted, with some difficulty, the urge to tell the doorman he was nuts. Fortunately, Brian Cashman wasn't taking advice from the doorman either.
Cano has evolved into one of the best players in the game and one of the best second baseman in Yankee history. This is no small thing as the Yankees have had some great second baseman including Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon and Willie Randolph. With the current season only about a month old, Cano is again the best hitter on the Yankees with an OPS+ of 169 in 90 at plate appearances. Cano also was one of the most dominant players in the recent World Baseball Classic where he helped lead the Dominican Republic to the championship while hitting .469/.514/.781.
Cano is also a 30-year-old second baseman who will be a free agent after this season. It is hard for Yankee fans to imagine the Yankees without Cano, but it is all too easy to imagine the Yankees in 2018-2021 or so with an overpriced Cano splitting his time between first base and DH. This is the dilemma facing the Yankees. Cano is still on top of his game and will likely remain there for the next few years, but the chances of him being a top second baseman after around 2016 are pretty slim.
Since WWII, only three players, Jeff Kent, Joe Morgan and Lou Whitaker, have accumulated 30 or more WAR at 31 or older while playing mostly (75 percent or more of their games) at second base. Morgan is the only one of the three to have topped 40 WAR after his 31st birthday. Moreover, only three players, Eddie Stanky in 1951, Randy Velarde in 1999 and Morgan in 1982 have posted seasons of five or more WAR playing primarily at second base after the age of 35.
Therefore long term prognosis for Cano as a productive second baseman is not good. It is likely that following 2-3 more good years he will either decline as a hitter and remain at second or slow down on defense but remain a good enough hitter to play first base or DH into his middle and late 30s. He would be a lot less valuable in those roles. Cano will probably be a very valuable player from around 2014-2016 and a significantly less valuable player after that. The problem the Yankees face is that Cano will not sign a three year deal, but will seek something in the 7-10 year range. This means that to get the three good years, the Yankees will probably need to overpay for an additional 4-7 years.
This is a very tough decision for the Yankees involving a very good and popular player. Letting Cano go at a time when the rest of the team is aging and there is limited promise in the farm system would make it hard for the Yankees to contend in 2014 and 2015. Keeping him would ensure that the latest cycle of Yankee dysfunction, overpaying for aging stars, will continue unabated while other teams are getting smarter in this regard.
If the Yankees were in a period of ascendancy, it would be wise to resign Cano despite the risk of overpaying. If he could play an instrumental role in a Yankee championship sometime in the next three years, it would be worth living with the rest of the contract. However, the Yankees are in a period of decline not ascendancy. Yankee resources mean these periods of decline are briefer than they might be for other teams, but they are still real. It is very likely that the next real championship run by the Yankees will not include Cano playing second base and batting in the middle of the order. It is also possible that they may not be able to acquire the pieces for a championship in 2017 or 2018 because they are stuck with an overpricing and declining Cano.
Making this decision even more confounding is that it is almost impossible to persuade a Yankee fan base who are told every year to expect a World Series win, and who frequently overrate their own players, that a long term contract for Cano is not worth it. Failing to sign Cano will be seen as just that, a failure, rather than a strategic decision, by most Yankee fans. Keeping Cano is a safe move which will convince fans that the Yankees are conceding nothing, but letting Cano go and using that money in other ways is probably more likely to yield that 28th World Series championship.