Cano bucks odds again with Mariners' megadeal
Now among highest-paid players of all time, All-Star nearly traded in Minors
Sure, the Robinson Cano negotiations turned out a lot different than most of us thought they would. The Yankees lost their No. 3 hitter to the Mariners for a compensation Draft pick -- essentially unimaginable in any era -- but it's hardly the first time Cano has written an unexpected script.
Cano's 10-year, $240 million deal will make him one of the three highest-paid players in history, standing alongside Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. Five years ago, would anyone have thought that?
Expand the filter a little bit and consider the 10 highest-paid players in history. This puts Cano in a group with Rodriguez, Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, Justin Verlander and Mariners teammate Felix Hernandez.
It's odd to see a second baseman valued alongside the others, but that's not the biggest way in which Cano stands out. He's the only guy on this list who wasn't clearly a stud from the start of his career. He developed throughout his 20s, at a time when the Yankees were fading as a powerhouse, to become a brand name worthy of the pedestal he was going to be placed upon, no matter if he stayed with the Yankees or went elsewhere.
The only guy on the list who wasn't such a standout after a couple of pro seasons was Votto, the 44th player overall in his Draft class and never ranked by Baseball America as the Reds' top prospect. But his own organization didn't showcase Votto for potential trades, as Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has admitted the Yankees did a young Cano.
Signed for about $100,000 in early 2001 as an 18-year-old from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, Cano immediately landed a visa to play Rookie ball in the United States -- a sign of his early standing within the organization. He climbed to the big leagues in his fifth season, but never generated serious prospect buzz, hitting under .280 in his first three seasons.
Cano lacked plate discipline at times and was known to take a bad hitting day with him out to second base (and occasionally shortstop). By the end of that third season, which he split between high Class A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, the Yankees had concluded that Cano was limited by his lack of speed and power.
When the Rangers offered them a chance to acquire Rodriguez and his oversized contract (along with $71 million to make it more palatable) after 2003, GM John Hart made it clear he wanted Alfonso Soriano and a top prospect in return. The Yankees offered Cano, but the Rangers wouldn't take him. Hart held out for another middle infielder, Joaquin Arias, and that's how the deal was done.
Cashman aggressively tried to deal Cano to the Royals for Carlos Beltran during the 2004 season. Allard Baird was shopping for a third baseman and a catcher, so Cashman had Trenton manager Stump Merrill move Cano to third so the Kansas City scouts could see him there when they came to watch Dioner Navarro, then regarded as the organization's top prospect. The Royals took a pass on that package, instead putting together a three-team deal that would bring third baseman Mark Teahen from Oakland and catcher John Buck from Houston.
According to The New York Times' Tyler Kepner, an Arizona scout did recommend Cano when the Yankees inquired about Randy Johnson later in 2004, but Joe Garagiola Jr. decided to hold onto Johnson until after the season. The deal that eventually sent him to New York was for Javier Vazquez, Navarro and pitching prospect Brad Halsey.
"We thought Robby was going to be a good player, but clearly we thought he had his limits,'' Cashman told me in the spring of 2012. "We knew he could hit for average but he wasn't really showing the power. It's true that sometimes the best trades are ones that you never make.''
Cano would play nine years for the Yankees, making the first of five All-Star teams in 2006. After homering only once every 47 at-bats in the Minors, he's hit 204 home runs in the Major Leagues, including at least 25 each of the last five seasons. He's been a consistent run producer, but last season was the first that he's led his team in runs batted in (although the third in OPS).
There's a reason that he looks out of place among baseball's highest-paid players. But it only takes one team to think you're worth the money, and the Mariners were that team. The Yankees, it turns out, were lucky they had him as long as they did.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.