What is Robinson Cano really worth?

cano23This is the most important season of Robinson Cano‘s career. He’s established himself as one of the game’s premier players. Now, he’s about to enter free-agency for the first time. He’s even gone out and hired Jay-Z to be his agent.

Everything about what Cano is doing indicates that he wants to make a big splash. The numbers being tossed around are as large as $200 million. Setting speculation aside for one moment, what would constitute fair value for Cano? If the Yankees were in a position to construct a deal that figured to compensate Cano fairly over the next several seasons, what would that contract look like?

Make no mistake, Robbie is a great player and the best hitter on the Yankees right now (his abysmal start to 2013 aside). The numbers back it up. According to Fangraphs, Cano is the 7th most valuable player in all of baseball since 2009, having accumulated 23.3 fWAR in that time. He’s just two wins behind Miguel Cabrera, the best player in all of baseball since 2009, according to fWAR. As a result, Robbie will get his due.

That payout will be large. Fangraphs estimates that Cano has been worth $25 million per year, on average, each year since 2009, inclusive. Over eight seasons that could easily turn into a $200 million deal. If Robbie has a knock out 2013 (don’t let these awful six games fool you; Robbie is only a .289 career hitter in April and does his best work later in the year) then that total could easily jump up to $225 million over nine or ten years. That would represent fair annual value for what Cano has given the Yankees, but it would be a gamble moving forward.

The single greatest factor weighing against the total size of any deal Robbie eventually gets is his age. He’ll be 31 when any new contract begins. While he’s been durable thus far in his career, even healthy he’ll have at most four peak years left. If the deal is too large, a team figures to be paying Cano $20 million a season or so as he declines. Robbie lives and dies by his bat speed, which is not something that ages gracefully. (Many analysts will also point out that as a second baseman Robbie shouldn’t age well, but he isn’t a typical dive-everywhere, body-at-risk middle infielder, so I don’t think that’s a fair comparison.)

Adding all this together, five years and $25 million seems like fair value for both parties. Cano would be compensated on an annual basis at par with his production. He’d have a monster deal. The team that signs him, meanwhile, would have some later year protection. Power hitters don’t age well in today’s game, and a team should be able to protect itself. Taking this all together, it still seems likely that Cano and the Yankees part ways as a result of this. In today’s game there’s some team out there that will give Robbie the extra years, no matter how ill-advised. The austerity minded Yankees just don’t seem like that club.