It’s always a shame when a legendary player becomes A Contract. He signs a make-your-grandkids-rich deal in free agency that recognizes what he did in his 20s, but as it pays out over his 30s, he slows down with age and can no longer outrun the public resentment that haunts all high-paid athletes. Eventually, the contract — the reputation, the baggage, the vitriol from fans and commentators — wraps around him like the tentacles of a giant squid and drags him into the deep. If it can happen to Albert Pujols, it can happen to anyone.
Last year, it looked like it was happening to Robinson Canó, who famously abandoned the Yankees before the 2014 season to sign a 10-year, $240 million deal with Seattle. But through two and a half months of 2016, he’s taken out an ax, started hacking off the limbs of the squid, and begun to swim free.
From 26 to 30, Canó was perhaps the most consistently excellent player in the game: at least 159 games played, a .300 batting average, and 25 home runs every year from 2009 to 2013. From 2010 to 2014, he finished no lower than sixth in AL MVP voting. At age 33, Canó’s already accumulated 58.4 Baseball Reference WAR; 60 career WAR is Hall of Fame territory if you had any sort of notable peak.
And yet he remained underrated during all those years. Despite showing up every day and hitting like a corner outfielder at an up-the-middle position, Canó’s effortless playing style earned him a reputation for being a low-energy player. That made him a target for baseball-watchers who demand showy hustle from players. As Canó slowed down last season — but kept making tons of money — the criticism only amplified.
However, Canó was still an above-average second baseman in 2015, with a 118 OPS+. When a win’s going for about $8 million on the free-agent market, even a merely above-average player can be worth a $24 million salary. But after hitting only .287/.334/.446 — his worst season since 2008 — Canó was trending in the wrong direction with eight years left on his contract.
So far this season, Canó has wielded his bat like a berserker’s staff against time itself, as if time were an animal that could be bludgeoned to death. He’s played in every single one of Seattle’s 63 games so far, and he’s hitting .295/.349/.574 for a career-high 153 OPS+. With 18 home runs, Canó is also on pace to set new career highs in homers and slugging percentage — despite having moved from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field, which, for a left-handed hitter, is like deciding to start hitting with a concrete bat.
After posting a .226 average (with good secondary numbers) in April, Canó went 17-for-31 in the first week of May, including six multihit games in seven days, and since then he’s been among the American League’s best hitters. Just like he has for the past decade.
Canó is the greatest of the Mariners’ veterans, but mid-30s success stories are as common in Seattle these days as B-roll of guys throwing fish across a market. Nelson Cruz (.293/.377/.530) is 35, Dae-ho Lee (.296/.333/.574) is 33, and Seth Smith (.255/.366/.398) is 33. Plus, after missing almost two full years due to injuries and illness, the 33-year-old Franklin Gutiérrez, once the best defensive center fielder in baseball, has reinvented himself as a valuable fourth outfielder, hitting .273/.372/.455 against left-handed pitching. Like Canó, all of those players were put out on an ice floe, then decided to turn it around, and they’ve paddled all the way back to second place in the AL West.