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Robinson Canó and the Impossible Contract

As the Seattle Mariners star is set to return from his 80-game suspension, it’s worth wondering: Can any 31-year-old athlete live up to a 10-year, $240 million deal?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Robinson Canó shocked the baseball world earlier this season when he tested positive for a diuretic used to mask PEDs and accepted an 80-game suspension. Cano denied ever using PEDs, but as my colleague Ben Lindbergh wrote, “because a positive test for a diuretic doesn’t automatically trigger a suspension under MLB’s basic agreement, we know that the league was able to demonstrate to the jointly appointed independent program administrator’s satisfaction that Canó did intend to hide his use of another substance.” The possibility of Cano taking PEDs didn’t make sense on the surface. Why risk his reputation after 14 mostly sterling seasons in the majors? Did he blow his chance at the Hall of Fame? Canó, who returns from suspension on Tuesday, wasn’t a fringe player looking to boost his performance in the hope of landing one last paycheck. The second baseman signed the fifth-largest contract (10 years, $240 million) in the history of professional sports with the Mariners in 2013.

His positive test put a new light on what he told Tyler Kepner of The New York Times during spring training:

“I want to earn every penny that I get here,” Canó said. “I don’t want to be like those guys that, two or three years into their contract, they do really good and then they don’t care. I do care. … That’s how I want to be remembered, as a guy that was productive in this game, not a guy that just feels comfortable because he gets the money.”

The conventional cynical wisdom is that players use PEDs to boost their stats and secure massive contracts, but what if we sometimes have it backward? In an interview for ESPN with Peter Gammons in 2009, Alex Rodriguez said he first began taking steroids in 2001 after signing a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers. A-Rod put a huge spotlight on himself by signing that deal, which was worth more than what Rangers owner Tom Hicks paid for the franchise. His performance had to be almost superhuman; otherwise, it would be judged a failure.

Canó wasn’t expected to be that good in Seattle, but he was still going to have a tough time living up to his contract. He was 31 when he signed it, six years older than A-Rod when he came to Texas. Position players typically peak between ages 26 and 28 and decline as they move into their 30s. The Rangers were paying for the best seasons of A-Rod’s career, while the Mariners are paying a massive premium for the back half of Canó’s.

It takes a long time for baseball players to reach free agency. Unlike in basketball and football, baseball players have to climb the ranks through four levels of minor leagues. Once they get to the majors, their salaries are controlled for six seasons. Teams also manipulate the service time of their best prospects, calling them up a few weeks into the season to gain an extra year of control before they reach free agency. Unless a player is a prodigy like A-Rod, who reached the majors at 18, he won’t hit the market until he’s past his prime. Under the current system, Aaron Judge won’t be a free agent until he’s 31. Jacob deGrom won’t be a free agent until he’s 32.

Canó, who was first called up to the Yankees at 22, was a bargain during his nine seasons with the club. New York paid Canó $58 million for his age 22-30 seasons, when he generated 45.5 wins above replacement, meaning they were paying their star middle infielder a little over $1.2 million per win. They let him walk in free agency because they had just experienced the downside of paying aging stars like A-Rod and Derek Jeter in their late 30s. Seattle is paying Canó $240 million for his age 31-40 seasons. Per FanGraphs, he was projected to generate 31.5 WAR over the life of his contract when they signed him, putting them at a ratio of $7.65 million per win. It’s more cost-effective to develop younger players rather than pay older ones in free agency, and the risk of their production falling off a cliff is lower.

The Mariners don’t have to look outside their division to see the downside of signing an elite slugger in his 30s. The Angels signed Albert Pujols to an identical 10-year, $240 million contract in 2012 when he was 31. Pujols, an all-time-great player in his first 11 seasons with the Cardinals, had one above-average season with his new team. He has generated only 8.0 WAR over the past five seasons, less than he put up in his best individual seasons in St. Louis. He still has three seasons left on a deal that is crippling a Los Angeles team with both the best and the most exciting players in baseball. Even with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, it’s hard to make the playoffs when you’re paying someone $27 million to produce 0.7 WAR.

If Canó’s spring training comments are any indication, he didn’t want to go down the same path as Pujols. It’s easy to portray baseball players suspected of PED use as villains selfishly distorting the record books, but of course it’s never that simple.

Just look at two of the greatest players from the previous generation: Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. Bonds spent his first seven seasons with the Pirates before signing with the Giants at the age of 28. Griffey spent his first 11 seasons with the Mariners before signing with the Reds at the age of 30. Both were sure-fire Hall of Famers before they signed with their second teams. Both were paid $95 million between the ages of 30 and 38. The difference is that Griffey produced 13.3 WAR over that stretch, while Bonds produced 77.8 WAR.

PED use is why Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame and Griffey is. But would San Francisco fans be willing to trade the second half of his career for Griffey’s? Bonds won back-to-back-to-back-to-back MVP awards and turned the Giants into an elite franchise. The Reds never even made the playoffs with Griffey.

Canó isn’t on their level, but he’s just as important to the Mariners. Seattle isn’t a traditional free-agent destination, and its farm system hasn’t produced much elite talent in recent years. Before his suspension, Canó had been the Mariners’ best player since arriving, producing 20.4 WAR in his first four seasons with the club and making three All-Star teams. They were in the midst of a 13-year playoff drought when they signed Canó. It is now the longest active streak in pro sports at 16 seasons.

Canó’s return couldn’t come soon enough. The Mariners have a 69-50 record and are 1.5 games behind the streaking A’s for the second wild-card spot in the American League. While, as part of his punishment in addition to the suspension, Canó wouldn’t be eligible for the postseason if they make it that far, he could still help them get back in for the first time since 2001. Seattle is in win-now mode. The team doesn’t have much of a long-term future: Only one of its top 10 players in terms of WAR is younger than 25, and both ESPN and Baseball America rate their farm system as the worst in baseball.

Canó, unlike Bonds, has a good relationship with the media, so he may still make the Hall of Fame. He could also benefit from a changing electorate, as younger voters have been more accepting of suspected PED users. But his legacy won’t be determined only by whether he gets a plaque in a museum in upstate New York. Bonds’s biggest legacy is in the Bay Area, where he’s still beloved. His star power helped secure public funding in the late ’90s for AT&T Park, a beautiful waterfront stadium that served as the backdrop for many of his titanic home run shots into McCovey Cove. The Giants retired his number over the weekend.

If Canó wants to be forgiven by Mariners fans, he can start by leading them to the playoffs this season. Seattle has enough veteran talent to be relevant over the next few seasons, so there’s still a chance for Canó to play in October again before his career ends. He just has to find a way to delay the aging process a little longer.