In 2005 the Yankees called up 22 year-old second-base prospect Robinson Cano and he responded by hitting 14 home runs in 132 games on his way to a .778 OPS. In 2006 he took a major step forward, hitting 15 home runs in 122 games while posting a solid tripleslash of .342/.365/.525. His walk rate was nothing to be proud of, but the Yankees had themselves a very young second baseman worth 2.9 WAR, a total which would have been significantly higher if not for some low fielding marks. The following year was Cano’s first full season with the Yankees, and over 160 games he clubbed 19 homers, powering his way to .306/.353/.488 batting line. Due to a higher fielding score, however, Fangraphs listed his value in 2008 as 4.7 WAR.
If you were reading about Cano for the first time today, and we stopped the story here and told you that in 2010, Cano was one of the best players on the Yankees and in all of baseball, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. After the 2007 season, life was good. All indicators were pointing up. Robinson Cano for President! Et cetera. Yet, when 2008 rolled around, Cano disappointed. His fielding scores reverted back to their low marks and he struggled at the plate, hitting only .271/.305/.410. Sure, his BABIP and HR/FB ratios were well below career norms, but his performance couldn’t be ignored, could it? Something was wrong with Cano, wasn’t it? The Yankees missed the playoffs that year. The Rays and their slew of home-grown prospects almost won the World Series, and the long cold winter stretched out in front of fans as disappointment settled in.
You weren’t alone, or an idiot, if you doubted Robinson Cano. That winter, Bill James released his 2009 Baseball Handbook. At the end of the book he ranked the top 25 young major league players of 2008, trying to strike a balance between age, upside and performance. Cano was nowhere to be found. Here was the top 25, in order:
Prince Fielder, Hanley Ramirez, Tim Lincecum, David Wright, Ryan Braun, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Kemp, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Reyes, Nick Markakis, Joakim Soria, Ryan Zimmermann, Cole Hamels, Troy Tulowitski, Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Evan Longoria, John Danks, Adrian Gonzalez, James Loney, Stephen Drew, Brian McCann. Miguel Cabrera, Grady Sizemore, Joey Votto.
James then ranked all of the 30 clubs after asking the question, “Who has the young talent now? Which teams have the most young talent?” . The Yankees were 29th out of 30, ahead only of the Houston Astros. In his blurb about the Yankees, James gave Cano only the briefest of mentions: “Anyway, the Yankees basically have no young talent of proven ability. They’ve got Melky (83), Cano (104), and Joba (121)” (p. 452).
That 104 represents Cano’s ranking. In 2008, Dustin Pedroia rightfully won the AL MVP, and Cano posted an OBP of .305 and barely earned himself the briefest of mentions in Bill James’ top young players list. Melky was ahead of him. For many, the doubt started to creep in with thoughts like: “Why doesn’t Robinson Cano work hard?” or “All Cano cares about is partying with Melky” or “Why can’t the Yankees develop position players?” or “Well, maybe a .325 BABIP was never sustainable in the first place” or “Maybe we should trade Cano while he still has value”.
Fish or cut bait? Hold or fold?
You know how this story plays out. Cano bounced back in 2009 with a .320/.352/.520 batting line and improved his UZR score to a career high. This year, he’s posting his first-ever positive UZR score with 5.8 and is batting an insane .332/.389/.567. He’s already been worth 5.5 Wins Above Replacement, second-highest in all of baseball. In a few hours, Moshe will post a few words about the MVP race. I imagine Robinson Cano will feature prominently in the discussion. At the end of the year he may lose out to Josh Hamilton, but that will say more about Hamilton’s year than Cano’s.
This is a lesson in patience. This is a lesson in conviction, in believing in players when other people start to doubt, slander or hate. This is a lesson in not panicking. Prospects will struggle, and some will never reach their full potential or just flat fall apart. But sometimes hanging on to the guys that frustrate you, that make you scratch your head and wonder, that make you want to scream, proves to be the smartest thing a club could ever do.