Say it Ain’t so, Robbie Cano

(If you don’t care about baseball, read this post anyway and see if you can find all the Jay-Z allusions! Sorry I’m not sorry.)

Jay-Z’s blueprint for his newest client has come to fruition. Robinson Cano, the star second baseman of the New York Yankees, is headed to Seattle, to the tune of 10 years and $240 million.

Gut-wrenching as it may be for Yankee fans, the team was right to not compete with the Mariners’ offer. Decoding the difference between the Seattle deal and the Yankees’ 7-year, $175 million offer, the Yankees actually offered Cano more per year; the difference is in those last three years. The Yankees, burned in recent years by a number of players tied up in huge contracts in their late 30s, know Cano won’t stay young forever. For years 8-10, Cano will probably be a shell of his former self. Of course, this can be worthwhile if he puts up MVP-type numbers in the first few years. He might. But while Cano’s physique may make him more likely to age gracefully than Albert Pujols (who signed a very similar contract two winters ago), he also has never quite been at Pujols’ level. He’s a very good player at a position that doesn’t have many great hitters, but he has yet to carry his team in the way you’d expect out of someone getting the third-richest contract in baseball history.

The move is also bad for Cano for a number of reasons: he goes from one of the best ballparks for left-handed hitters to cavernous Safeco Field; he probably could have made back the difference of the contracts in endorsements by staying in New York; and unless the Mariners continue to spend a lot of money, he probably won’t be sniffing the playoffs anytime soon. The contract looks an awful lot like the one the Texas Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez ten years ago, and that isn’t a comparison that should inspire much optimism in Mariner fans. For Cano, the Holy Grail was apparently the guaranteed money in the last few years of his career. Baseball is a business, man.

The Yankees may have 99 problems, but the payroll ain’t one, especially with Cano out of the picture. The 2014 Yankees will look very different, but they could still be a pretty good team. They’ve already gone shopping this offseason, luring in catcher Brian McCann and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and while both deals are not without some injury-and-aging risks of their own, the Yankees are in decent position to have an offense that is stronger than last season’s. They’re now free to spend even more, though the free agent market isn’t ideal for filing all of their needs if they want to stop watching other teams mount the throne in October.

The infield, which was one of baseball’s all-time greatest just three years ago, is now a mess. Mark Teixeira is aging and coming off a major injury—and he is the most reliable person here. Derek Jeter is forty and coming off a lost season; ideally he should move to third base, given his diminished range (which was never good, even in his prime) and the decent shortstop options available, but he may have too much pride for that. The options at the other two positions currently consist of Eduardo Nunez, Kelly Johnson, and Brendan Ryan, with perhaps a splash of Mark Reynolds for good measure. They’re going to need another player there, but Omar Infante is probably the best they can do.

Still, I’ve long believed that teams tend to overpay and go awry when they fixate too much on their weaknesses instead of going after the best options available. (Bill James will back me up on this, too.) Hence the Ellsbury deal: who cares that the Yankees already have a decent left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder in Brett Gardner? Go get one of the best out there, move Gardner to left, and have two of them. The 2014 Yankees may not have the Murderers’ Row heart of the order we expect out of the Bronx Bombers, but they’ll have two of the fastest players in the league, and one of the best outfield defenses. And to that end, it now makes good sense to lock up the likes of a Carlos Beltran. He may not be young, but it’ll be a short deal without the deadweight one sees in these ten-year contracts, and he once again improves the defense, bumping Alfonso Soriano to DH and adding a switch-hitting power bat. With enough good outfielders, they can handle bad offense at an infield position or two.

After that, they should train their attention on the pitching staff, where Masahiro Tanaka should be their priority. He comes with some risk, but 24-year-old potential star pitchers don’t come along every day, and this team needs to take some risks to be successful. Add him to Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia (he can’t possibly be worse than last season, can he?), and some intriguing younger options, and you have the makings of a passable rotation. David Robertson, as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera, could use an established presence to set him up and take his spot if he flounders. Complete that checklist, and the Yankees will have had a very strong offseason, considering where they were just a few months ago. They may not be a great team, but they’ll have enough storylines to fill the seats, and if enough of the veterans bounce back from lost seasons in 2013, they’ll contend.

Cano’s legacy in pinstripes will be an oddly incomplete one; it’s hard to think of a Yankee star who came up through the system who chose to go elsewhere mid-career. He could have run the town; made himself an icon in that concrete jungle where dreams are made of, but he’ll be big pimpin’ in Seattle now. (Three in one line! I’m on fire now.) During Cano’s time in New York, it was common to compare him to his Boston counterpart, Dustin Pedroia. We Yankee fans got pretty sick of the comparison: the scrappy, impish Pedroia with dirt on his shoulders (and everywhere else on his uniform) versus Cano, a man of impeccable physique whose smoothness led some to charge him with laziness; despite his clear edge in talent, some argued, Cano was never the leader or the gamer that Pedroia is. It played into the tiresome scrappy-white-guy-vs.-lazy-but-talented-minority storyline, too. In the end, though, Pedroia took a smaller contract to stay in Boston; he chose to stay true to an organization, and something larger than himself. Cano, while not lazy, chose to chase the money. I don’t blame him for that; you can’t knock the hustle. But while Cano may become a Hall-of-Famer, he will probably never be the icon Pedroia is, unless the Mariners do shock us all in the next few years.

In a deal that looks murky for the Yankees, the Mariners, and Robinson Cano, one person did come out a big winner: Cano’s rookie agent, the man who informed the Yankee brass that they could refer to him as “Jay” during the negotiations. The man knows what he’s doing, and after this contract coup, the clients should come pouring in. On to the next one.

Image from the aptly named