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Robinson Canó: The Rare Big Over-30 Free Agent to Avoid Free Fall

The second baseman, who was reportedly shipped to the Mets this weekend, produced a value that exceeded what he was paid by the Mariners. That’s not as common as you may think.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Saturday, the Mets and Mariners reportedly agreed to the terms of a seven-player trade that was more than a week and many a rumor in the making. Seattle sent second baseman Robinson Canó, closer Edwin Díaz, and $20 million of salary-offsetting cash to New York for outfielder Jay Bruce, relievers Anthony Swarzak and Gerson Bautista, and the Mets’ third- and fourth-ranked prospects, according to MLB.com: 2018 first-round center fielder Jarred Kelenic and Double-A starter Justin Dunn. It takes a long sentence just to summarize the swap, which explains why the deal wasn’t done in a day.

For the Mariners, the move was mostly about continuing to replenish a farm system that brought up the rear in most preseason rankings. For the Mets, it was mostly about Díaz, a dominant late-inning arm who hasn’t yet reached arbitration and is still subject to four years of team control. Thus, it was largely not about Canó, the most accomplished, highest-profile, and highest-paid player in the trade. Yet it couldn’t have happened the way it went down if not for Canó’s continued defiance of the fate that often befalls free agents who land long-term commitments in their 30s. At 36, Canó is no longer a blockbuster centerpiece, but he remains a very valuable player, salary aside. And although the Mariners’ decision to sign him didn’t pay off in a playoff appearance, their half of his decade-long deal worked out way better than most contracts of its kind.

The Mariners signed Canó to a 10-year, $240 million deal in December 2013, about two months after his 31st birthday and less than one month after Canó’s then-agents Jay-Z and Brodie Van Wagenen—the latter of whom is now New York’s GM and Canó’s new employer—tried to use the Mets as leverage in a transparent attempt to drive up his price. Although the Yankees weren’t swayed by Roc Nation’s choreographed crosstown dinner date, the Mariners seemingly played into Hova’s hands by bidding against themselves. No matter: Because Canó has aged gracefully, the Mariners have come out ahead on what was then tied for the third-largest contract in baseball history.

Save for 2016, when he hit a career-high 39 homers, Canó hasn’t produced as much power in Seattle as he did in the Bronx, but that’s partly a product of Safeco Field being a middling power park for southpaws, compared with Yankee Stadium’s league-leading left-handed homer inflation. Adjust for that context, and Canó’s offense is still elite: In 2018, he led all second basemen (minimum 300 plate appearances) with a 136 wRC+ to go with his .303/.374/.471 slash line.

A stomach parasite and his grandfather’s death derailed Canó’s first half of 2015, and he lost three months of last season to an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a diuretic that’s often employed to mask PED use—which Canó predictably denied. (Conveniently for Canó, he served that suspension while already disabled by a fractured wrist that required surgery.) Outside of his 2018 absence, Canó has stayed durable in his 30s, missing only 18 games with minor injuries over his first four seasons in Seattle. Pairing his potent bat with what the stats still assess as a solid glove has resulted in star-level overall value. Canó has amassed 23.6 Baseball-Reference WAR as a Mariner, which ranks 17th among all position players over the past five years.

Even going by FanGraphs WAR, which sees him as a few wins worse than that, Canó’s production in Seattle has been worth $163.7 million, based on the going rate for wins on the free-agent market. That’s over $40 million more than the $120 million the Mariners were supposed to pay him for that period. And while they will be kicking in cash for Canó’s Queens phase, they also saved close to $12 million that Canó forfeited by being suspended without pay. Throw in whatever portion of the player package coming from the Mets is attributable to Canó’s expected production, and it’s clear that the Mariners came out ahead on a contract that had a high potential to backfire. Admittedly, those dollars were “wasted” in the sense that they didn’t deliver a long-awaited end to the Mariners’ playoff drought (which could reach voting age next year). But Canó can’t be blamed for the rest of the franchise’s failures on the field or in the front office.

To see how much worse the Mariners’ end of the deal could have been, I came up with comps for Canó by combing through all deals of six years or longer that started at age 30 or older, dating back to at least 1984 and taking effect no later than 2014 (to allow for at least five years of performance). I then separated the recipients into three groups: free agents 31 or older (13 players, including Canó when he signed with Seattle); free agents 30 or older (16 players); and all players 30 or older who received any sort of six-plus-year contract, including an extension (25 players).

The charts below show how favorably Canó stacks up against all three groups, particularly the closest comps (the 31-and-older free agents). The display on the left shows Canó’s WAR total in the first five years of his deal compared with the other groups’ average non-Canó five-year WAR totals, while the display on the right shows the WAR declines (by percentage) in the first five years of the deals compared with the five years preceding the deals. In other words: The left side is how good they were after their deals began, and the right side is how much worse they were then than before their deals began.

On the left-hand chart, Canó’s 23.6 WAR towers over every group’s average. Of the 24 other players in the most inclusive sample, the only ones to outproduce Canó in the first five years of their respective deals were Adrián Beltré (an all-time-great old player) and Mike Mussina in the free-agent group and Jim Edmonds and Joey Votto in the extension group. Edmonds and Beltré were also the only two players to be more valuable in the five years after their contracts started than they were in the five years before, although Mussina’s Yankees years and Miguel Tejada’s Orioles-and-Astros era came close.

The right-hand chart shows that Canó also declined less relative to his previous five years than the other groups did, on average. That Canó declined by as much as he did is a testament to how great he was with the Yankees from 2009 to 2013, when he led all players in WAR. Among the oldsters signed to long-term deals, only Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez outperformed Canó in the five years before their contracts began.

By setting the cutoff at 2014 to make five-year comparisons possible, I’m excluding more recent long-term, over-30 signees on track to be successes, such as Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke. I’m also omitting some that are off to concerning or disastrous starts, like Johnny Cueto, Chris Davis, and Yu Darvish. But we all know the names that have become cautionary tales. Seven players have produced less than half as much value in their “after” five years than they did during their “before” five years: Mo Vaughn (who managed only 2.4 WAR after signing with the Angels before the ’99 season), the oft-injured Ken Griffey Jr. in his Cincinnati stage, Shin-Soo Choo, Pujols, and the more recently extended trio of David Wright, Miguel Cabrera, and Dustin Pedroia. Five more players—A-Rod, George Brett, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Lee, and Jayson Werth—round out the group that fell off by more than 40 percent.

Even halfway through its term, Canó’s contract looks like an artifact from a different era. No player has signed a free-agent contract of more than eight years since Jay-Z rapped, “Robinson Canó, you coming with me,” and while Manny Machado and Bryce Harper may both be about to, they’re 26. Given the growing front-office awareness of aging curves and the widespread wariness of paying for past production, it’s hard to imagine any 31-year-old not named Mike Trout convincing a team to lock him up for that long. This era of baseball belongs to the youth, as shown by the average hitter age weighted by WAR, which reached a new low for the DH era in 2018 …

… as well as by the percentages of leaguewide WAR generated by players 35 or older (really low!) and players 25 or younger (really high!).

One reason older players aren’t performing as well as they did a decade or two ago could be less rampant PED use. Canó has claimed that the size of his contract motivates him to be worth what he’s paid, and perhaps hard work and talent explain a lot of his longevity, but in light of his positive test, it’s fair to wonder whether PED use has helped prop him up. Even if that’s the case, though, one need look no further than his former teammate Nelson Cruz to know that players suspended for PED use don’t dependably play worse when they return, aging effects aside. Cue the small-sample song, but Canó did hit better post-suspension (140 wRC+) than he did pre-suspension (131 wRC+). Thanks to that late-season uptick, he blew by Cruz to outhit every other player 35 or older on the year.

Canó’s positive test looks like the only critique that can keep him out of Cooperstown considering that he’s already well above the historical statistical standard for second base. Of course, what Canó accomplished in Seattle, fully natural or not, doesn’t do much for the Mets, except to the degree that it improves the outlook for his future in Flushing. The good news there is that Canó, who waived his no-trade clause to return to the city where he broke into the big leagues, still projects as a top-five player at his position in 2019. His skills haven’t seemed to recede: He hit the ball harder, on average, in 2018 than he did in any of the previous three seasons. And while he is slow, he’s not getting slower: His average sprint speed in 2018, 24.5 feet/second (fifth percentile), was almost identical to his average sprint speed in 2015, 24.6 feet/second (seventh percentile).

The back half of Canó’s contract is bound to be much worse than the front half. That’s how these things work: Teams hope to rack up surplus value early on in long-term contracts that will make up for the deficits later in the deals. The Mets are signing up for the endgame, and it’s probably going to get ugly between now and 2023. It’s not ugly now, though, and that’s a credit to Canó, chemistry, or some combination of both. Many other over-30 free agents’ contracts have quickly become immovable. Clearly, Canó’s did not.