"Did they get a fair price for Rickey Henderson? It's kind of like if you're an art collector and you have the Mona Lisa, what's a fair price for it? The idea in building a championship team is to acquire players like Rickey Henderson. It's a sad day when you have to give one away."
Bill James wrote that in 1985 after the Oakland Athletics traded away Rickey Henderson to (ironically enough) the New York Yankees before the start of season. Henderson, at that point in his career, was 28 years old and was widely regarded as one of the best all-around baseball players in the league. The A's opted to trade Henderson away in exchange for some assets because they knew he would be outside of their price range once hitting free agency the following season.
It's not a perfect comparison, but when thinking about the impending "to spend or not to spend?" question that the Yankees face regarding Robinson Cano, that James quote reasonates.
Cano is (deservedly) on track to receive one of the largest contracts in baseball history. He's in the prime of his career, has been the most valuable position player in baseball for the last three seasons and excels at just about every aspect of the game. With the Dodgers throwing money around like they just don't give a damn and widespread lucrative TV deals continuing to marginalize New York's leg-up in the payroll department, Cano's price is probably going to balloon to an 8- to 10-year deal worth upwards of $220 million.
The Yankees have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of extending Cano. At 30 years of age it's likely that the all-star second baseman will begin to deteriorate after three or four years of signing his big money deal. New York, perhaps more than anybody, realizes that inking high caliber free agents is an investment of declining returns. There was also 2005 study by Nate Silver that found second basemen actually decline at a faster rate than players at any other position, presumably due to the quality of players that tend to play second – those that lack the arm strength or range to play short – and the fact that the position is constantly turning double-plays. The Yankees have the luxury of being able to DH Cano to try and save his body down the road, but that would merely prolong the inevitable.
The other fact of the matter is, the core of the Yankees is old. For years New York won championships by poaching free agents exactly like Robinson Cano to add to their strong core of Jeter, Rivera, Pettite, Posada, and Williams. The expensive veteran additions were just that, additions, they were not meant to be the foundation of the team. New York, as of right now, has no foundation, and it will presumably take them a few years to piece together a collection of youngsters in which to rebuild around. Cano would continue to be the best player on a middling team and likely be on the decline by the time the Yankees are ready to contend for titles again.
Were this a similar scenario for another franchise there would not be much of a discussion, Cano would have either been traded already or be out the door following the end of his contract. However, this is the New York Yankees, they acquire or re-sign players like Cano, Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, and C.C. Sabathia, and they don't let them walk away. That is, unless Hal Steinbrunner has the vision and the guts to bring to end the era that his father began 20 years ago. Can he afford to be so cavelier? Perhaps.
Frankly it appears Yankees fans have become so spoiled by their team that they've started to lose interest, if the empty seats in the stadium last fall were any indication. But not resigning Cano essentially means the Yankees will have to be the Mets for a few seasons, beginining a stretch of feebleness that has not happened since the 80s. Ticket prices will have to be slashed, viewership on the billion-dollar YES network will drop and the Yankees will become just another rebuilding franchise trying to discover a new fist full of talent to lead them on another run.
In the end though, I keep circling back to the quote about Henderson. Despite Cano's impending price-tag, despite his liklihood to age poorly and despite the Yankees needing a serious infusion of young talent, it's Robinson Cano. The idea in building a championship team is to acquire players like Robinson Cano. It's a sad day when you have to let one walk away.
By: Ryan Gilmore