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Robinson Canó (and Edwin Díaz) trade rumors heat up — and what this could mean for a rebuild

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Whether to eat salary or to increase prospect return, ‘tis the question

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Good morning, Mariners world! There’s absolutely no news to talk about today and nothing out of the ordinary this early—

um...

oh boy...

Well, this is a big development. These talks seem to have progressed from merely exploratory to a bit more real, to the point where there are actual prospects being discussed and phrases like “significant momentum” being thrown around.

Now, Robinson Cano does have a full no-trade clause, but if the Mariners are going to engage in a rebuilding process, it’s hard to imagine he would want to stick around. This move, on its own, probably makes sense to a lot of M’s fans. It’s painful, of course, given the massive contract given to Robi and his All-Star level in the last few years, but it’s logical enough.

And to many Mariners fans, trading Edwin Diaz makes a lot of sense too. He’s a young fireballer, all of 24 years old, and he still has four years remaining of club control. He just finished one of the best five or 10 seasons by a reliever in baseball history. Since relievers are more valuable to winning teams than to rebuilding teams (due to their playoff presence and ability to win close games), getting prospect value back would fit better with the Mariners’ stated timeline.

But trading Edwin as part of the price to acquire Canó? Now things are starting to get a bit dicier. The Mariners need to value minor leaguers — young, controllable talent that will get better in a few years and be ready to hit the ground running in 2020 or 2021. They need to prioritize this talent infusion over saving a few bucks on Robi’s contract. This is obvious to everyone — and doing otherwise seems to be not only counterintuitive, but downright cheap, a sign that the M’s ownership would rather save a few bucks than put together a full-on rebuilding effort.

Let’s look at this from another perspective. The 36-year-old Canó has five years left on his contract left at $120 million, and per Steamer projections, he’ll be worth roughly $81 million in player value during those five years. As far as huge contracts go, that’s not terrible! Canó’s provided enough value over the first five years of his deal that the contract, as a whole, looks fairly decent. (Admittedly: “fairly decent” is, in and of itself, damning with faint praise.)

However, that’s still $40 million or so in negative value. Edwin Díaz, meanwhile, is projected to be worth something like 2.0 fWAR each of the next four seasons. Given that, and the $/WAR estimates in the Canó section, and he’ll get you something like $55 million in surplus value once you take away the money he’ll be owed in arbitration.

So you can imagine a world where trading Díaz and Canó together, with no salary offsets, brings you back a decent prospect. But here are the hangups for most M’s fans:

  • Both trading Canó and trading Díaz make sense for the Mariners in a vacuum. But does trading them together deflate the market for Edwin? Almost every team could use a player like Edwin Díaz, especially at his salary. Very few teams could use and afford a player like Canó. So you’re no longer getting the most possible value out of him.
  • Now that James Paxton and Mike Zunino are gone, Canó and Díaz are arguably the two most recognizable pieces of this team for the next few years, other than Félix Hernández (only signed for one more season) and Mitch Haniger (a wonderful, very nice, somewhat-personality-less blob). Will fans be okay with giving up on these two players? Especially since Nelson Cruz seems likely to leave as well?
  • AND, most importantly: using Díaz as the carrot to force the Mets (or any other team) to eat Canó’s salary means the Mariners will get back less of a prospect return. It also potentially signifies the M’s refusing to spend and being cheap.

This last point, I think, deserves explication. There’s real value in maintaining payroll flexibility in order to pick up free agents or to trade for players like Mike Leake down the road. Think of it as a low-ceiling, high-floor move: Sure, you won’t get as many shots at the top prospects that are making small salaries while producing like crazy on the field, but if you spend money on payroll, then you’ll be able to find that value with less risk of the player/prospect blowing up on you (see: Montero, Jesus, or Ackley, Dustin, or Smoak, Justin...).

It’s a valid argument as a method of rebuilding. It wouldn’t be the coolest move, and it lacks the sheer it-factor of getting top prospects, but it makes sense. As we saw last offseason, those mid-level players are fairly easy to acquire.

However, given the issues surrounding this team off the field and the historic playoff drought that it faces, it’s hard to put all that much trust in the front office. And choosing to trust in the Mariners to spend less now but ramp up the spending later on when they’re a contender is, thusly, a hard thing to do.

From a baseball perspective, I understand flipping Canó and Díaz together. From a prospect hound perspective, if we can do that and still get a player like Jarred Kelenic, I welcome such a move. But I think much of the fan base will be up in arms about getting the Mets to eat down Canó’s salary, and I understand that fully. I’m going to struggle with this move, if it happens, and I’m sure many of you will too. It requires trust that I don’t quite have at this point. It requires a lot of faith in the power of logic as opposed to the power of dreams. Right now, I’d rather have something — or somebody — to dream on.