Friday, May 1, 2020

The One That Got Away, Part 2

Yesterday I started a piece on the Kelenic trade. I never intended it to be a 2-parter, but I spent quite a bit of time writing about how the New York media uses any young player traded by the Mets that goes on to enjoy success elsewhere to bludgeon the Mets repeatedly. It's always been near the top of the list of things that really bug me about how the Mets are covered. I feel as if I made a reasonable case yesterday on how over-the-top this can be. Please read part 1 first if you haven't yet.

Now that I've reached the part where I wish to share my thoughts on the deal, I just want to say one more time that comparing this deal right now to the Nolan Ryan trade is ludicrous and borderline insane. I understand the need to attract readers by putting something controversial out there, but the kid has just reached AA. I'd slow down on predicting a Hall of Fame career just yet. Still, as much as the hype bugs me, I agree that the trade was a really bad one.

The Mets' decision in October 2018 to hire Brodie Van Wagenen, an agent with no experience in a Major League front office, to be their new GM seemed strange at the time to me. When he pulled the trigger on the Cano trade in December, I just shook my head. My problem wasn't with trading Jarred Kelenic, really. He was regarded as an excellent prospect already, but it was the entirety of the trade itself that bothered me.

It's no secret that the Mets are operating in an extreme financial bind since they lost the Madoff dollars in late 2008. If you're the newly-hired General Manager of the New York Mets, your first thought always should be on maximizing every dollar spent on talent. Not only should you place a high value on any highly-rated prospect that you have, but also any dollar spent bringing in a veteran ballplayer should be carefully weighed against the value you get from that player.

Van Wagenen hasn't confided in me what his thought process was when he pulled the trigger on this deal, although I'm always open to chat if he wants, but I believe I have a pretty good idea of what he was thinking. He just took over a team that was on the edge of being a contender, with an excellent starting rotation that they weren't going to keep much longer. He saw a chance to bring in a guy not far removed from being one of the best hitters in the game and a closer still under team control coming off a great season.

From Van Wagenen's point of view, if you're thinking that you're running a win-now club, you don't want to give up major league talent to get these 2 players. So you give up a couple of your top prospects that weren't knocking on the door of the majors. And you get to make a big splash in the local media by bringing Cano back to New York.

The problems are pretty obvious, however, and were from the get-go. Putting aside what you gave up in prospects to acquire Cano, you took on a $24 million per year contract. While you offset roughly $4 million per year of that, $20 million is a large chunk of change for the cash-strapped Mets. In exchange, you got a second baseman heading into his age-35 season, already showing signs of decline.

In the years 2010 - 2014, Cano put up OPS+ numbers that averaged 142. Those are legit star numbers. In 2015 his OPS+ fell to 117, bounced back to 138 in 2016, then dropped to 114 in 2017. He was 32 at that point, and, as the saying goes, the trend was not his friend.

Then, just a few days after he broke his hand in May of 2018, it was announced that Cano tested positive for a banned substance that is commonly used to mask the use of steroids and other PEDs. Cano protested his innocence, but his protests didn't ring true to folks knowledgeable about the subject. Already out with the broken hand, Cano was slapped with an 80-game suspension.

He came back after his suspension and had a solid 1/2 season in what proved to be his last one in Seattle. His batting average of .303 was his first time cracking .300 since 2014, and his OPS+ rebounded back to 136. Still, if you're the Mariners, you're saying to yourself, "we have this guy under contract for 5 more years at $24 million per. He's going to be playing his age-36 through age-40 seasons. His offense and defense are both declining, and he's been caught cheating once already. Who will relieve us of this burden?"

Along comes young Brodie Van Wagenen, the virginal General Manager of the New York Mets. He's going to take Robbie Cano off your hands, along with $100 million of the $120 million you still owe him. He's got to be your hero - the downside of the ten-year deal with Cano was always going to be the last 5 years, and now they're gone, along with all of that nasty, nasty PED stank. If I was the Seattle GM, I would take that deal without getting anything of value back.

Year after year, Robinson Cano is going to be a bigger albatross around BVW's neck. He's not the best defensive second baseman on the team, but he's going to play a lot there. You can only hope that he bounces back offensively because his OPS+ of 96 last season made him less valuable at the plate than Joe Panik. Another season of numbers like he put up last year, and I'm not sure you can justify playing him at all.

Edwin Diaz was the other big piece in the deal. He's a reliever, and he's young, he might just bounce back and be a good closer. Is Cano going to be a great player again? Maybe if he finds more effective masking agents to hide steroid use, but I would hate to bet my life on it.

Even if the NL winds up adopting the DH rule, too, that's no guarantee that option will benefit Cano. It would be a good thing for a younger, better defensive player to take over at 2B, but Cano will need to up his offensive game quite a bit to justify giving him DH at-bats.

Van Wagenen knew Cano well and was convinced he would be great again. Even if he had been, I'm not sure he makes the difference for a team that finished 86-76 in third place. The Mets never looked like the class of the division. Their best bet seemed a Wild Card run. Was that ever worth rolling the dice with Cano? It's not BVW's fault that the dice came up snake eyes, but the fact that he rolled them at all seems to me a mistake.

If Robbie Cano led the Mets to a World Series title in 2019, this would be moot, I guess. That was the big swing, but at best, it was a low percentage one. And that money that the Mets will be paying Cano through 2023 is almost undoubtedly money better spent elsewhere for a cash-strapped franchise.

Van Wagenen is a smart guy. Successful agent, a Stamford grad - if you listen to him talk, you can tell he's no idiot. But his first big deal will likely hamstring anything else he tries to do with the Mets, no matter how long he stays here. For his sake, he needs to hope that someone with deeper pockets buys the club because the only way you can get out of a mistake like bringing in Cano is to buy your way out of it.

It's going to be hard to judge BVW, as it was Sandy Alderson before him. It's tough to run a big-market club with small-market cash flow. Sandy Alderson dealt with that his entire tenure here. Sandy made some mistakes, too, but nothing on the scale of Cano. That was just a bad business decision that should have been foreseen by a Stanford alum.

I haven't written about Kelenic yet, because, in the context of my points here, it's almost irrelevant.  Cano should have been a no-go, just based on the finances. As for Jarred Kelenic, his star shot way up this year as he impressed as a 19-year-old bumped all the way up to AA by season's end. He was considered an excellent prospect before then, but now he's elite. If Van Wagenen had resisted this deal and held onto the kid for another season, he would now have the choice between waiting for Jarred to ascend to the bigs or trading him for something of more value than an aging middle infielder coming off a steroid suspension.

Bottom line: Taking on so much salary for an aging steroid cheater while giving up 2 of your best prospects doesn't make sense for the penny-pinching Mets, even if Jarred Kelenic falls a little short of the Hall of Fame trajectory that Joel Sherman envisions for him.

I wish Kelenic well, but I've moved on from him personally. I'm not going to waste my energy pining away for the one that got away, and I'm not going to let the local scribes get to me with overheated nonsense. My worries are about what's ahead, not what's behind.

Whatever happens to baseball this year, when it does come back, the Mets aren't going to be sending
Noah Syndergaard to the mound every fifth day. As frustrating as he can be at times, it's hard to see the Mets as not diminished by his absence. I think it's going to be tough for the Mets to compete with the Braves and the Phillies, and even the Marlins might become a threat before too long. The Nationals are World Champs and still have some great players. The NL East isn't going to be easy, and unless BVW and his brain trust start acting a hell of a lot smarter, I'm worried.

The recent history of this club seems to be an endless loop of short cycles of success followed by longer periods of putrid suckiness. We badly need someone to come along and rescue us from that fate - you know, the way that Brodie rescued the Mariners from the downside of Cano's career.

Stay well, everyone. I'll be back tomorrow.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos


  1. Mike, I think this is one of the best, if not the best, analyses of the Cano trade. When it was made I thought that it was a huge gamble. First, because of the age of the player and the money issues that you bring up. Second, in my mind, the best player on the team at the time was Jeff McNeil, the second basemen. Why would you move him off second to bring in a plus 35 year old player making big bucks? If you are going to pay big bucks for someone, why not a position you needed like a catcher or center fielder?

    The point could be made that the Mets were trying to get Edwin Diaz to fill the bullpen need as part of the deal. However, bullpen guys are historically up and down guys. The ones that can do it year and year out (Mariano, Billy Wagner, even John Franco) are rare.

    A huge gamble all the way around. Jim Fregosi for Nolan Ryan, Leroy Stanton, etc.? Probably not that bad.

    Not only is Cano's contract an Albatross, the Mets will insist on playing him everyday even as his production gets worse and worse and worse. It is what they do. Thy did it with Jason Bay, they did it with Oliver Perez, they did it with Luis Castillo.

    Stay safe.

  2. Yeah, I remember the thinking on McNeil was supposedly that they weren't totally sold that they weren't sure that he was for real based on 225 AB in 2018. But I felt like you did, with limited $ to spend, better to upgrade somewhere where you didn't have a promising young player.

    I think your point about the team running him out there if his production doesn't warrant it is my biggest worry. If Brodie is smart he'll admit the mistake and not do that. I like some of the things he's doing, but if he refuses to cut bait with Cano then he'll deserve to be fired and his replacement will do it.


The Defense Doesn't Rest

A renewed emphasis on defense would be a good thing for the New York Mets. Mike Vaccaro had an interesting column in the New York Post  abou...