Earlier this week, Dave Cameron wrapped up his annual trade value series over on FanGraphs with a look at the least valuable trade assets in baseball. The five players who appeared on this list all have a significant amount of dead money owed to them over the next few years. It's basically a who’s who of aging veterans who were signed to long, expensive contracts. At the top (or bottom) of this list of toxic assets is none other than Robinson Cano.
Like with any long term contract, the bulk of the surplus value comes up front with the amount of dead money increasing as the life of the contract runs out. The same was true for Cano and the Mariners when he signed a ten-year contract last year. Jack Zduriencik was banking on building around one of the best second basemen as the Mariners made the transition from rebuilding to contender. We saw the fruit of this vision last year as Cano led the Mariners to within one game of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, we haven't seen the same kind of production from Cano this year. Here's what Cameron had to say about Cano’s future with the Mariners:
"This year, though, Cano’s power has remained absent but now his contact rate has also regressed, leading to his highest strikeout rate of his career. While you don’t want to overreact to a bad half season, this looks like a 32 year old whose skills are beginning to atrophy.
Cano will likely rebound some and should still be expected to be an above average player in the short-term, but with nearly $200 million left on the $240 million deal he signed with the Mariners, this a huge commitment to a guy who probably isn’t a star anymore."
I’m not going to argue with any of Cameron’s math—I don’t have the acumen and he’s probably closer to reality than we think. Instead, I take issue with his assertion that Cano is the least valuable asset in baseball. Yes, Cano has struggled through the first half of the year and has only accumulated 0.6 fWAR thus far. Yes, he’s dealt with a stomach issue that sapped much of his strength and energy. But do we truly expect Cano’s performance to tumble so quickly? Is this really the beginning of the end for Cano?
In the FanGraphs article, Dan Szymborski provides ZIPS projections for 2016 as well as a five year total. Out of the five players listed in the article, Robinson Cano is projected to have the highest zWAR total next year and over the next five years. Szymborski projects Cano to be worth 3.6 zWAR in 2016; that would have been the sixth highest ZIPS projection for a second baseman at the start of this year. Since 1995, there have been seven seasons worth more than 3.6 fWAR from a 33-year-old second baseman. Cano may not be the best second baseman in the league anymore but he’s still damn good.
Cano’s five year projection is even rosier. Szymborski projects Cano to accumulate 13.2 zWAR over the next five years. There have been just three second basemen since 1995 who have accumulated that much fWAR between their age-33 season and their age-37 season. One of them is a hall of famer (Craig Biggio) and one of them should be in the hall of fame (Jeff Kent). The projections provided in the article paint a picture of one of the better second basemen in the league over the next five years.
Like I said above, we knew that the back end of the contract would be filled with dead money. But the Mariners are still getting value out of Cano now and in the near future—he’s going to be a core piece for the Mariners for a while. That’s great news, especially if you consider the situation the Rangers find themselves in. Elvis Andrus is signed for the same term as Cano and is owed $118 million over the next nine years. But Andrus’ contract is already filled with dead money. He’s been worth -0.2 fWAR this year and Szymborski projects Andrus to be worth just 5.8 zWAR over the next five years. There’s no return value in Andrus’ contract. Rick Porcello was signed to a four-year extension worth $82.5 million when he was traded to the Red Sox. He’s been worth 0.2 fWAR this year and his outlook certainly doesn’t look rosy in the near future. Shin-Soo Choo is projected to be worth just 4.7 zWAR over the next five years and is owed $102 million in that time.
When it comes down to it, Cano’s contract is still a bad contract with a ton of dead money attached to it. But it could be worse. The Mariners could be overpaying for someone who isn’t presently returning any value on the field. Instead, they’re overpaying for a good second baseman who had a rough half-season but is projected to bounce back. The amount of dead money you credit to Cano's contract depends on whether or not you think Cano is approaching a steep decline or a more gradual, sloping decline. I think that the ZIPS projections that are included in the FanGraphs article show that Cano isn't really the least valuable trade asset in baseball. He will continue to be a core member of the next great Mariners team and, if they were to trade him, he would be a valuable contributor to that hypothetical team as well. At least that’s better than what Choo and Andrus are providing the Rangers.