Prior to signing Robinson Cano on Friday, the Seattle Mariners had been working overtime to land an impact player this winter, if their constant presence on the rumor mill was any indication. They were the early favorites to land Jacoby Ellsbury at the start of the off-season. They had been connected to Carlos Beltran and Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli as well. On Wednesday night, rumors broke out that they were the front-runners in the bidding for the Rays' David Price. Whatever else you might say about the Mariners front office, you couldn't accuse them not trying to improve.
Yet, for all their effort, the biggest addition Seattle had made before Cano was a two-year, $5.8 million deal with utility player Willie Bloomquist. Seattle started the off-season with gobs of money to spend this winter, a farm system that is starting to deliver quality players to the roster and GM in the final year of his contract coming off of four straight losing seasons. That should add up to the kind of spending spree that is usually reserved for newly-minted Dodgers owners or a Yankees GM who just watched his team miss the postseason. But during a week that featured one of the craziest days in off-season history, the Mariners had added exactly one Willie Bloomquist.
Until, Friday, of course.
On Friday morning the Mariners locked up the top free agent available, giving former-Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano the sixth $200 million-plus contract in baseball history with a 10-year, $240 million deal. The easy and completely accurate reaction is that the deal is an overpay. Most of the other $200 million contracts in the game's history have been fairly regrettable and this one is going to go bad at some point as well. However, even as most experts look into the future and see a disaster for the Mariners in the later years of the deal, a number of people also believe this was something the Mariners essentailly had to do.
Mike Bates at SBNation points out that second basemen have a history of aging poorly, but he likes the move as a first step for Seattle:
[The Cano signing] by itself, won't make the Mariners into playoff contenders, and in isolation a signing like this would be a terrible waste of money. If, however, the Mariners don't stop here, using their middle infield depth to help upgrade their starting pitching, and remake their atrocious bullpen, the Mariners could certainly become a wild card contender.
While he doesn't expect the Mariners to make good on their potential, Grant Brisbee at Baseball Nation describes the possible short-term appeal for the Mariners:
Even if it is the final roster, it's one with considerable talent that should blossom over the next three years. Cano should still be Cano during that time, and he should help them as much as almost any player in the league could help his team.
At Baseball Prospectus ($$), Sam Miller points out the risk the Mariners would have taken by waiting another year to see if some of that talent blossoms:
We've long treated these big contracts as front-loaded value, where a team gets some good years for a good rate but know they have to write off the last couple years. In a league where nobody hits free agency anymore and everybody's a buyer, teams like the Mariners might simply have to write off the first year, too. It's too risky to wait until you're at 86 wins to go shopping for the player who'll push you to 91.
Jeff Sullivan of the USS Mariner blog nails down exactly why the deal is important for Seattle even if it is also a colossal risk:
Now that this has happened, maybe next time the Mariners don't need to out-bid the competition by so much. In the minds of players, this does make Seattle more alluring, because they've attracted a star and now they're trying to win. It's a factor, even if we can't really measure it.
$240 million dollars is an incredible amount of money, even in baseball, where there is no hard cap limiting salaries and television revenue is pushing spending up on what seems like a daily basis. The risk of any deal this big is so great that it doesn't take much to turn it into a complete bust. However, the Mariners have been fighting a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the players they want to acquire for several seasons now and if this deal changes that, there is the potential for significant added value that goes far beyond dollar-per-WAR breakdowns and the inherent risk of signing a player in his 30's to a blockbuster deal like this.
Seattle has faced several unique disadvantages when wooing free agents and prior to their deal with Cano, those disadvantages were making improvement virtually impossible. Discussing their pursuit of Cruz, Beltran and Napoli earlier this off-season, Ken Rosenthal wrote:
In recent offseasons, the M's failed to land Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder in free agency and Justin Upton when he rejected a trade. Hitters look at Seattle and see the following: Bad team. Pitcher-friendly ballpark. Undesirable geography, particularly for players from Latin America who want to be close to home.
The Mariners need to change the conversation, establish a winning culture under new manager Lloyd McClendon, establish an identity. Problem is, all of the free-agent hitters they are pursuing - with the possible exception of Ellsbury, a native of Oregon - would accept comparable offers from more competitive teams before coming to Seattle.
If Rosenthal is correct in his assessment, overpaying for someone was the only option for Seattle. They had to change to this narrative and signing Cano has almost certainly done that. If this deal means they can pay a market rate to improve the back-end of their rotation or to upgrade first base or the outfield, that will be an enormous victory because the problems facing Seattle are incredibly persistent.
Consider the issues Rosenthal cites:
The baseball season is a grind. As Josh Beckett will gladly tell you, there are only about nineteen days off from April 1 to October 1. Besides playing baseball practically every day all summer, baseball players also have to travel to almost every major city in the country. Sure, they aren't flying coach and staying at a Best Western, but the comforts of a private plane and a luxury hotel don't completely counteract the effects of the jet-lag and the disorientation that comes with this lifestyle.
No team in any sport travels more miles in a season than the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners closest opponent is 608 miles away in Oakland. Nine of the other 15 teams in the American League are more than 1500 miles from Seattle. The newest team in their division is over 1800 miles away. No matter what the Mariners front office does, as long as they play in Seattle, they put this unique burden on their players. It is not hard to see that free agents look at Seattle at see a more difficult life compared to playing for Eastern clubs, who might be traveling less than 200 miles to their closest rival. Signing Cano won't change that, but getting a high profile player like him to come to town could make Seattle an easier sell for others.
This might be more accurately called the Adrian Beltre effect. Safeco Field has never been a great place for hitters and it is an especially hard place to be a right-handed power hitter, with a park factor of 89 for RHH home runs (by Fangraphs calculations). However, the negative effect the park has had on the Mariners pursuit of top free agents is probably a direct response to the sad story of Adrian Beltre's time in Seattle.
Beltre signed with the Mariners in December of 2004 after hitting .334/.388/.629 and leading the National League in home runs with 48 with the Dodgers that season. Then just 25-years-old, Beltre looked like a potential bargain at five-year, $64 million. He was a young, premium defender at third who also happened to be an elite right-handed hitter. It went unimaginably bad immediately. Beltre hit .255/.303/.413 with just 19 home runs in 2005 and over the five-year span of his deal, he hit just .266/.317/.442. His last season in the Pacific Northwest was the worst of his career and he was forced to settle for a one-year deal with the Red Sox for 2010 to attempt to rebuild his value. He then hit .321/.365/.553 with 28 home runs and led the league with 49 doubles for Boston. The Rangers signed him to a five-year deal worth $80 million and to date he has hit .312/.356/.542 as a Ranger. This might be nothing more than a single narrative, but it is an incredible powerful one, especially if you are a power hitter.
The Mariners moved their fences in prior to the 2013 season in an attempt to make the park play more neutral. The early evidence suggests the change might have the desired effect. Baseball-reference lists the one-year park factor at Safeco for the 2013 season as 97 for hitters, up from the multi-year factor of 92. It will take a few more years to know if this will actually persist, however. If it does, the new dimensions will help Mariners' hitters look better in the non-park adjusted numbers, but they won't exorcise the ghost of Adrian Beltre's time in Seattle.
Robinson Cano might though. Cano ranks 20th in home runs since 2008 and he has averaged 24 dingers per 162 games in his career. If he maintains those kinds of numbers next season and in 2015, the park's reputation as a wasteland for power-hitters might not carry as much weight as it does today. To convince players that the shorter fence distances have made the park more hitter-friendly, the team needs a counter-example to the Adrian Beltre-effect and Cano is excellent choice for that role.
With the other two factors keeping top-tier free agents away, this one was perpetually self-fulfilling. The Mariners have tried several methods of building on the cheap over the past seven seasons, but all of them have failed rather spectacularly. As Rosenthal notes above, even their previous attempts to buy big have fallen flat.
The current team is not yet a contender, but there is at least hope. At the top of the rotation, they have two elite pitchers in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and top prospect Taijuan Walker gives them hope for a third in the near future. After watching top prospects bust with startling regularity, the team appears to have hit on some quality regulars in Brad Miller, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino and the now-expendable Nick Franklin.
This group alone probably couldn't take the Mariners past the Rangers and Athletics or even to the second wild-card spot, but with just over $30 million committed to 2014 before arbitration and Cano's deal, the team has the ability to add enough to compete in the next two years without overextending their budget. Prior to Cano, Seattle was unable to convince anyone to take their money, however. Cano probably doesn't make them a winning team by himself, but he brings them close enough that other free agents might now consider heading West.
In his article at Baseball Prospectus, Sam Miller calculates Cano's cost per win at $6.7 million based on Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections. With Fangraph's currently estimating the average cost per win at $5.5 million, that represents of $1.2 million per win overpay or a 21 percent premium over the current market rate (inflation will decrease the degree of the total cost-per-win overpay). Considering that Cano is the top free agent available and some premium is to be expected for such a player, the extra cost Seattle has paid is not so extreme when you consider all of the factors working against them. The end of the contract is going to be hard to bear, but Seattle's immediate concerns far outweigh the hazards four and five years down the road.
The Mariners had to change their current narrative and make Seattle look like a more appealing option for players. Compared to paying the same premium several times over to bring in lesser players with greater short-term risk like Beltran and Napoli, overpaying for Cano to accomplish this might be the most effective solution. If Cano doesn't help Seattle field a contending club over the next three to four years, his contract will be a bust even if he resists decline well enough to make the numbers work on a cost per win basis.
The Mariners had to do something big this off-season and they did the biggest thing they could possibly do. It may not work, but doing nothing was not an option.