Baseball crime pays since Robinson Cano will receive the approximately $44.6 million he is owed from now through next season — some of it paid by the Mariners, most of it by the Mets.
But Cano’s involvement with illegal performance enhancers has come with a price. It cost him a year and a half in pay or about $36 million for two suspensions. It almost certainly cost him a shot at the Hall of Fame. It cost him his reputation, at least outside clubhouses. Now it is costing him employment — and perhaps will contribute to ending his career.
The Mets needed a roster spot on Monday and decided they would rather pay Cano about $37.6 million not to play for them rather than optioning J.D. Davis, Luis Guillorme or Dom Smith, or releasing Travis Jankowski. During most of Cano’s career, it would have been laughable to include those names in the same sentence with him. On Monday — with this post-suspension version of Cano — it felt like the proper call.
The Mets, with an owner who can tolerate a significant financial hit, determined the jigsaw puzzle fit better for a win-now team without Cano. Now, will any other team take on a 39-year-old, two-time PED loser off to a poor start? If not, then last Friday’s game will be remembered as momentous for more than the five-pitcher combined no-hitter against the Phillies. It also would represent Cano’s final major league game.
Obviously, the financial cost is so little (literally the prorated minimum) that at a contender struggling on offense and/or with positional injury — the White Sox for example — could bring in Cano and see if it was rust from missing all of last season that led to him hitting .195 with a .501 OPS while playing about half the Mets games this year.
The acceptance of bringing in players with a PED history comes with less negativity than in the past (see the Mets inking Starling Marte, for example). Cano, though, is among the most notorious, punished users ever. Still, if signed, Cano can use the same playbook he deployed when meeting reporters early this past spring training, evading every PED-related question with general contrition and vague answers.
Brodie Van Wagenen, who negotiated the 10-year, $240 million deal with Seattle that Cano is still operating under, brought him to the Mets as their GM and now represents Cano again, said that when and if Cano clears the designated for assignment phase that “Robbie absolutely still wants to play. Given the right situation, he can still make a meaningful contribution for a team.”
Van Wagenen said Cano did not hold animus toward the Mets, understanding “the tough decision” that came with the mandatory reduction from 28 to 26 players on Monday. Of course, this would not have been a tough call if Cano were hitting like Cano. You don’t protect Luis Guillorme or Travis Jankowski in that situation, no matter how valuable Buck Showalter might see them in bench roles. Cano spent most of his career as among the greatest hitting second basemen ever.
Cano actually had encouraged the Mets by swinging well in winter ball and spring training. But erratic play and regular-season pitching undid him. His stats plummeted and that beautiful smooth, balanced swing was less consistent. In spring, as part of his evasive press conference, Cano would not even say he would stop using steroids. But, assuming he is clean, is it possible that Cano has lost not just the physical benefits of the drugs, but also confidence to perform without illegal help?
When asked why he still believes in Cano, Van Wagenen said, “His body feels great. He had a good experience in winter ball. He gained a lot of confidence during spring training. He believes his skills are still at a level that he can help a team win. He’s been adjusting to the new role as a complementary piece and believes he will improve in that role if he gets that opportunity going forward.”
The Mets faced a somewhat similar situation in 2019. Travis d’Arnaud had missed most of the 2018 season after needing Tommy John surgery. He received sporadic at-bats in April 2019 (Van Wagenen was the GM) and was released on May 3. He ultimately wound up with the 96-win Rays as a valuable player, demonstrating the Mets had not given him both enough time and playing time to knock off the rust. But he was 30.
Albert Pujols was 41 last year and in the final season of the same 10-year, $240 million pact when he lost playing time with the Angels and was eventually released on May 13 with wonder whether that marked the end of his career. Pujols ended up being a valuable role player for the 106-win Dodgers and signed this year to return to the Cardinals.
But there also was the Yankees releasing Cano’s former teammate and mentor Alex Rodriguez in August 2016 with $27 million-ish still owed him — and A-Rod never played again despite having one more year left on his contract, as Cano has now.
Cano will be paid that $24 million in 2023 ($20.25 million of it from the Mets) regardless of whether he ever plays again. His malfeasance did not cost him that. But it did cost him.