Yesterday, I raised a hypothetical scenario in which a straight-up Matt Cain for Robinson Cano swap was offered to Brian Cashman by Giants G.M. Brian Sabean. In doing so, I ducked some flying tomatoes and analyzed Cain’s statistical body of work thus far, which reveals him to be an excellent National League pitcher and a prototypical workhorse – but not an elite hurler. On many Major League teams (I have it at 15), Cain’s an opening day starter. But on a team that boasts Timmy the Freak and two other pitchers with 133 and 136 ERA+, he’s just part of the machine. In a roundabout way, I also mentioned in yesterday’s post why I didn’t present a Cano for Lincecum, Cano for Josh Johnson, or Cano for Felix scenario. Simply put, those pitchers would likely require more than Robbie in exchange for a top-five-in-all-of-baseball ace. Then again, maybe not.
So far, the overwhelming consensus among RAB readers is that the Giants would need to give more to make a Cain for Cano trade even moderately feasible. Far more. Some even went as far as to insist that they wouldn’t trade Cano at this stage of his career for the best pitcher on the planet. Personally, I would trade my all-world 147 WAR mother for King Felix and, being a die-hard, lifelong Yankees fan raised in the Bronx, she would grudgingly approve. With an accumulated 24.2 WAR and outstanding peripherals for his first six seasons, Felix, at age 24, is presumed to be on the cusp of emerging as a once-in-a-generation pitcher. Is this hyperbole? I think so. But his trends portend inevitable greatness and the durability required to ultimately produce a Hall of Fame body of work.
In comparison, Robinson Cano is an elite middle-infielder and possibly the best second baseman in baseball right now. There’s obviously huge value in that. But some of his perceived inconsistencies also preclude him from being included among the collection of modern-era greats like Kent, Biggio, Alomar, Sandberg, Carew, and Morgan – which may or may not be fair. While it’s true that Cano’s already at least as good as Ryno and Biggio were at similar stages of their respective careers, longevity will determine whether or not he belongs in the bling-and-grit-encrusted penthouse of the all-time-all-world second basemen’s club.
Point being? Demanding Felix for Cano isn’t all that crazy after all.
But let’s slog ahead with the Cain-for-Cano proposal anyway and see if it would even remotely make sense from the Yankees’ standpoint. Which means this time, it’s Cano’s turn to go under the microscope.
First, to reiterate: A Matt Cain acquisition would change the entire complexion of the Yankees’ rotation, one that is in dire need of stability. Phil Hughes is coming off his most labor-intensive season to date, Sergio Mitre is replacement-level, Ivan Nova looks depressed about something, and A.J. Burnett is an enigma whom I’d argue could, in fact, be worse in 2011. With Cain, the starting five instantly goes from “C.C. and Phil and where are my pills?” to a rotation that can match blows with Boston, Tampa, Texas, Toronto, and the always annoying L.A. Angels. Again, Matty Cain’s not a shutdown, smackdown, show-pony ace. We know this. But did we know this?
In case you’ve misplaced your magnifying glass, Matt Cain’s purple line of consistent very goodness is not far removed from C.C. Sabathia’s crimson line of utter domination. In fact, take away Cain’s 2006, and you have very similar pitchers (at least in terms of ERA+). Looking at the graph, one could also deduce that the great Tim Lincecum is a spectacularly hot mess of inconsistency. Food for thought.
But, as many of you have already noted, giving up Cano at this stage of his career for a non-elite starting pitcher could very well be the height of insanity. At 27, Robbie posted career highs in wOBA (.389), OPS+ (142) and WAR (6.1), finishing third in the final AL MVP race. In 2010, he additionally posted an increased UZR of -0.6 (up from a Steve Saxian -11.2 in ’08) and an on-base-percentage of .381, further dispelling the schadenfreude brigade, who had seemingly taken perverse joy in his defensive ineptitude and lack of plate discipline. That Robbie also plays a premium defensive position (and elegantly so) that doesn’t historically generate impressive power numbers only adds to his overall value.
Dealing Cano also presents the obvious conundrum of trying to fill a void just created. The Yankees would have no in-house replacement for him, unless you consider replacement level (Ramiro Pena) adequate. Even with his auspicious debut at Double-A Trenton last year in which he posted a .900 OPS in limited time, David Adams won’t be ready for quite a while. And as for free agent second basemen, the best of the remaining crop is the consistently mediocre Willy Aybar, who nonetheless sputtered to an abysmal -.18 “meh” rating last year (82 OPS+ ).
If Cashman did accept the Sabean proposal, he’d be doing so with an eye on the 2012 free agent market, which will include premium second basemen Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks. Obviously, neither player would completely fill the void in production left by Cano, but Weeks’ 125 OPS+ and plus-defense would ease the pain and force me to buy his T-shirt.
The ability to acquire Weeks or Phillips for nothing more than big money and a top draft pick who may or may not spiral into a dark abyss in his third year of minor league ball underscores a critical trend: Position players and relievers – even elite ones – are viewed as largely fungible. As great as Robbie is, there will always be another second baseman around the bend who can at least approximate his level of production. In contrast, top-shelf free agent pitchers are going the way of Starry Night mouse pads. Cliff Lee’s mega-deal with the Phillies notwithstanding, the dearth of this past off-season’s starting pitcher options included league average slop-servers Jon Garland, Vincente Padilla, Javy Vazquez and Carl Pavano – any of whom would get chewed to bits in the AL East. Also, if you think you have a strong enough constitution, have a glance at the 2012 free agent list as further evidence of what the future of free agent starting pitching options looks like.
Finally, there’s one more thing to consider: As great a player as Robinson Cano has become, when plotted on a graph, his yearly offensive output in his first six seasons resembles a Charlie Brown T-shirt.
Extraplating from this, there’s a very real chance that Cano regresses to his mean in 2011, which would still provide outstanding output of around 120 OPS+ and 3 WAR. I suppose one could also make the case that his freakish 2011 campaign is merely the beginning of a path to other-worldly dominance, which I find possible and desirable but not bloody likely. Either way, I wouldn’t do the deal. Not for Matt Cain (whom I still find to be criminally undervalued) and perhaps not even for Lincecum. Cano is young, durable, and when in one of his grooves, utterly ferocious. Perhaps a year ago, I make this deal. But now that Robbie’s also mastered the art of plate discipline, he may be poised to seize the torch from both A-Rod and Teixeira as the most dangerous hitter on the team.
Still, if the Yankees plan on seriously competing for the playoffs in 2011, they simply cannot go without another stalwart arm in the rotation. Cashman knows this, which is why such an offering would give him more pause than most of us would like to think.