The Nationals do not need an infielder; they don’t need anything, really, when it comes to their everyday lineup. Every regular from last season remains under contract, and General Manager Mike Rizzo has given no indication he plans to make changes. He has declared Adam LaRoche their 2014 first baseman. He wants to extend Ian Desmond and says he won’t trade Anthony Rendon. Ryan Zimmerman’s full no-trade clause has kicked in.
And so the Nationals have not been connected to the biggest name available in free agency, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. Everyone expects he will return to the Yankees, anyway. But maybe the idea of the Nationals making a run at Cano shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. He is the best player available, and they have deep pockets, a desire to win and a roster suited for contention.
Whether or not the Nationals want to court Cano, there is a case to be made. There are plenty of valid arguments against pursuing Cano, but each of those can be countered with a valid response based on the Nationals’ current position and the financial might of their wealthy owners. Without advocating one way or the other, here is the case for why the Nationals should go after Cano, one counter at a time.
1. Since the Nationals do not need Cano to fill an obvious hole, they should be patient and use their resources to acquire another player who can make an impact at a position they need to fill in the years to come.
Counter: That player may not come along. In baseball’s current landscape, a player of Cano’s caliber rarely, if ever, becomes available in his prime. It’s not like the Nationals — or any team – can pass now on Cano and wait for the next iteration to come along. Teams have increasingly locked up their own homegrown players with contract extensions, thinning the free agent market.
Next year’s crop appears particularly barren, with Hanley Ramirez and Chase Headley the marquee players scheduled for free agency. Cano ranks fourth in the majors in Wins Above Replacement over the past three seasons, per FanGraphs. Of the top 20 names on that list, only Headley and Ben Zobrist could be free agents after next season; Zobrsit will be 34, and the Rays have a 2015 team option for him worth $7.5 million. (Jacoby Ellsbury, 10th on the list, is a free agent now.) Putting cost aside, the opportunity to acquire a player like Cano is rare.
2. Of course, cost cannot be put aside. Cano would require a huge contract, probably in the range of eight or nine years and $200-250 million. While tying up a ton of money, such a deal would also mitigate the advantage the Nationals have in Rendon – a solid player who comes relatively cheap and will stay cheap as he improves for the next several years. Controllable talent is the game’s greatest commodity, and the Nationals would be minimizing Rendon’s impact.
Counter: Simple. Cano is the best player available and would provide an immediate upgrade over Rendon for the next handful of seasons. The Nationals have the money to take on Cano’s deal. Their owners are wealthy even without the influx of television pouring into the game, even if the MASN contract does not reach resolution this year. Add in those streams? Well, the money is either getting spent on talent or it is enriching ownership.
The Nationals do not want to trade Rendon, and Mike Rizzo even went so far as to tell MLB.com that he will be a National in 2014. Still, the Nationals could flip Rendon for a young, controllable talent at other positions – like part of a package to acquire a starting pitcher. They could also ask Rendon to be a reserve for one season, then move him to third and shift Zimmerman across the diamond to first once LaRoche’s contract runs out.
3. Cano will either be 40 or close to it by the end of his contract. The Nationals would be paying a steep premium for his decline phase. There is no surer way to crater your organization than huge financial commitments to past-their-prime players.
Counter: The Nationals are in position to prioritize now over later. Having won 184 games over the last two seasons, they are a contender that cannot afford to keep powder dry. The Nationals can win the World Series this year, and that consideration should trump all others.
If the Nationals do not win a title in the next three seasons, then when will they? Stephen Strasburg is under team control for three more seasons. Jordan Zimmermann and Desmond are both eligible for free agency after 2015. In eight years, Ted Lerner will be 95.
The financial crunch a contract like Cano’s would bring is purely hypothetical. Hang a pennant or three up at Nationals Park in the first half of Cano’s contract, and the Nationals could be generating enough revenue to maneuver around what would be a financial albatross for most teams.
And by the end of Cano’s deal, given the escalation of baseball’s revenue, the contract may not seem so extravagant. Just look at Jayson Werth’s deal. It may have been an overpay in December 2010, but already it looks to be in line with the current market.
4. The Nationals need to keep room in their payroll for long-term contracts for Strasburg and Harper. They already have Werth and Zimmerman signed to $100-plus contracts, and adding another megadeal to that list will inhibit the Nationals’ financial flexibility in locking up their two first overall picks, two pillars of the franchise.
Counter: Locking up Harper and Strasburg has been discussed since they were drafted, but that does not make it an immutable law. Strasburg is a 25-year-old who has twice undergone surgery in his first four professional seasons. All pitchers are inherently delicate, and Strasburg has already proven susceptible to the kind of injuries that require operations. In three years, he might be the best pitcher in baseball. He also might be broken. Signing him to a long-term deal right now seems riskier than simply letting his team control expire and bidding against all 29 other teams in free agency. Strasburg has been great, absolutely great, when he has pitched. Let’s not confuse that. But to state definitively that the Nationals need to set aside a financial commitment for him between three and eight years from now would be presumptuous.
Harper’s contract is a whole other ball of wax, and because he’s a hitter he would carry less risk. But the idea of locking him up when he will not be a free agent until 2018 again speaks to the now-or-later question. The Nationals are built to win now. Worry about the next two or three seasons, not the next 10, because there are too many variables to consider.
In the end, the case to sign Cano distills many complex arguments into simple facts. Cano will cost a massive sum, and the Nationals have massive sums. The Nationals can win now, and Cano would help them do that in the near-term more than any other player available. They could do it, and it would make them a better team. And isn’t that the point?
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