The 10-year, $275 million contract Alex Rodriguez signed in 2007 is one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the New York Yankees. The only good thing that can be said about it is that it has taught the Yankees precisely where they should draw the line when it comes to long-term contracts.
Hence the reason they must proceed with caution with star second baseman Robinson Cano.
Cano is due to hit free agency at the end of the 2013 season, and the word from Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com is that there's a "pretty decent chance" that the Yankees won't stop Cano from hitting free agency by locking him up to a contract extension beforehand.
Cano and the Yankees don't even appear to be anywhere close to an extension. The Yankees and Cano's agent, the almighty Scott Boras, disagree on exactly how good Cano is. The Yankees think he's a top-10 or maybe a top-15 player. Boras is peddling Cano as a top-five player.
"There are few elite players. That just is a very short list -- less than five," Boras told Heyman.
Cano is a career .308 hitter who has averaged 29 home runs over the last four seasons. He's developed into an elite defensive second baseman, winning Gold Gloves two of the last three years. He's finished in the top six of the AL MVP voting three straight years, and he had a higher WAR in 2012 than AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, whether you consult Baseball-Reference.com or FanGraphs.
All of this makes it very hard for the Yankees to argue with Boras about Cano being a top-five player, in which case he should be in line for a contract similar to the top five contracts in the league.
Those belong to A-Rod, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder and Joe Mauer. The average worth of their contracts, as Heyman pointed out, is $223 million. The shortest of the bunch is Mauer's eight-year deal with the Minnesota Twins.
Thus, it's going to take a contract in the eight to 10-year range and for at least $200 million for the Yankees to retain Cano. Even in a day and age when contracts are getting more and more ridiculous, that's no small commitment.
The Yankees can handle the money part. They want to get under $189 million in 2014 and stay there if they can help it, sure. But they certainly have the funds to afford another $20ish million-per-year deal, and they presently only have about $81 million committed for 2014 and $68 million committed for 2015, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts.
It's the years the Yankees should be worried about. Cano will be embarking on his age-30 season in 2013. That puts him a little too close to A-Rod circa 2007 territory, as he was coming off his age-31 season when he signed his 10-year megadeal. The Yankees know from the way his deal has panned out that they should fear the long-term future.
Heyman brought up some good points about Boras' likely defense if/when the Yankees bring up the A-Rod situation, saying Boras "will counter by saying Cano is his own entity and personality, a clean liver with a clean resume whose only similarity with A-Rod is that they share a clubhouse."
Reading between the lines, the general message will be that there's less to fear in Cano's case because he hasn't been doing anything he shouldn't be doing. Outside of some silly rumor from last season, he's never been linked to PEDs. His body isn't a ticking time bomb.
The problem with any argument such as this one is that it chalks up A-Rod's decline to his admitted PED use in the early 2000s. In reality, he's aged about as well as any other player, and that's to say not well at all.
Rodriguez was at the height of his career between 2003 and 2007, his age 27-31 seasons. His latest five-year sample size between 2008 and 2012, in which he's gone from his age-32 season to his age-36 season, hasn't been nearly as productive.
As the following table shows, he's not alone there.
|Player||Age 27-31, 2003-2007||Age 32-36, 2008-2012|
|Alex Rodriguez||37.9 WAR||20.0 WAR|
|David Ortiz||23.8 WAR||11.0 WAR|
|Lance Berkman||21.3 WAR||14.9 WAR|
|Placido Polanco||19.4 WAR||11.5 WAR|
|J.D. Drew||19.2 WAR||8.3 WAR*|
*Retired after 2011.
There's no ignoring the trend. A-Rod isn't the only player who went from being a star player between the ages of 27 and 31 to being much less of a star player between the ages of 32 and 36. He's been better than the others but well short of his past greatness.
The only player in the above list who is still going strong is David Ortiz, and his situation comes with a couple caveats. One is that his body has been saved by years of DH duty. The other is that he's not going that strong, as a good chunk of his 2012 season was lost to an Achilles injury.
The trend isn't all that different if the ages are adjusted to be more in Cano's territory. He's come into his own between the ages of 26 and 29 over the last four seasons. Here's a look at players who did the same between 2005 and 2008, and how they played over the next four years between the ages of 30 and 33.
|Player||Age 26-29, 2005-2008||Age 30-33, 2009-2012|
|Chase Utley||30.6 WAR||20.3 WAR|
|Jimmy Rollins||20.5 WAR||8.3 WAR|
|Adrian Beltre||16.6 WAR||22.7 WAR|
|Jason Bay||13.0 WAR||6.0 WAR|
|Kevin Youkilis||12.9 WAR||16.4 WAR|
Three of the five players here regressed with age. Chase Utley's career is nearing its end due to knee problems. Jason Bay's own career has been derailed largely due to injuries. Kevin Youkilis' star status has gone away in a hurry over the last two years thanks to injuries.
The only player in this table who's still going strong is Adrian Beltre, but it seems like he's always playing through one nagging injury or another at any given time.
This data suggests that the Yankees would be taking their chances with Cano even if they were to sign him to a mere three- or four-year contract, as things get a little dicey when players get into their mid-30s. Utley's case is particularly scary because he and Cano play the same position.
But the Yankees, of course, are going to have to give Cano an eight to 10-year contract to keep him. Such a contract would lock him up for his age-31 season through his age-38 season, at the very least.
Naturally, the recent track record for players in their late 30s is even less encouraging for players in their early 30s. Since 2005, only four players have accumulated at least a 10 WAR between their age-35 and age-38 seasons: Chipper Jones, Mark Grudzielanek, Derek Jeter and Jim Thome.
At the rate he's going, A-Rod likely won't be joining their company. He's compiled a 5.7 WAR over the last two seasons, his age-35 and age-36 campaigns, and he's going to miss at least half the 2013 season recovering from his latest hip surgery. Whether he'll ever be a productive player again at his age and on two surgically repaired hips is doubtful.
At least A-Rod's contract isn't back-loaded. If Boras is looking to take after the contracts signed by Pujols, Votto and Fielder, Cano's next contract will probably be back-loaded. Whoever signs Cano, be it the Yankees or somebody else, wouldn't be getting poor performances at discounted rates if he were to be undone by age.
If I'm the Yankees, I'm only signing Cano to a long-term contract if the total cost is less than $200 million and if the years are in the five to seven range. To do this, I'd basically be doing the same thing they're supposedly already doing, and that's trying to convince Boras that Cano isn't a top-five player worth a long-term contract for over $200 million per year.
As long as Cano is characteristically productive in 2013, the Yankees aren't going to have any luck talking Boras down. Whether or not the Yankees are the ones who grant it, Boras will get his wish for Cano's next contract one way or another.
So don't think the Yankees won't walk away from Cano after 2013 if the price tag doesn't drop. They know all too well from A-Rod's contract about the risks that come with long-term deals for players over 30, and they have every reason to believe that A-Rod's slow destruction with age is not a freak occurrence. He's not the first big-time ballplayer to be undone by age, nor will he be the last.
Come 2014, there could be somebody else manning second base for the Yankees, and they might have zero reservations about that.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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