The 30: Nobody Knows What’s Happening With Robinson Cano

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In today’s game, the over-30 star has become a bit like a ticking time bomb. Ever since the crackdown on PEDs in 2006, players have (mostly) been unable to extend their careers via chemical means. And with that has come a pronounced shift in the way baseball players age. Those entering their thirties are liable to fall off a cliff at any moment, as the shift from superstar to bench jockey now comes quicker than ever.

Four teams are dealing with this scary scenario right now. The Mariners are hoping Robinson Cano isn’t cooked a year and a half into a 10-year contract. The Padres are crossing their fingers that the trade for Matt Kemp won’t go down as one of the worst in franchise history. The Yankees are searching for answers as CC Sabathia keeps getting lit up every fifth day. And the Dodgers are debating how long to stick with Jimmy Rollins while their all-world shortstop prospect marinates in Triple-A.

On the plus side, AARP discounts for all. It’s Week 13 of The 30.

Best Bat Flip of the Week Since Week 8

When it comes to bat flips, the greats know to make every one count. And Jae-gyun Hwang, third baseman for the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization, is one of those greats. A prolific power hitter, Hwang launched a pitch toward the left-field corner on Thursday. Unsure whether the ball would stay fair or veer foul, he stood at home plate, watching it and holding his bat high over his head. Only when the ball snuck just inside the foul pole did Hwang chuck his bat to the heavens, thus earning himself the first flip of the week honors since Giants teammate Jung Hoon in Week 8.

Mariner Mystery

Is Seattle’s star second baseman cooked? Or is he just going through a long, hellacious slump?

30. Philadelphia Phillies (28-56 record, minus-133 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Milwaukee Brewers (36-48, minus-51, LW: 29)
28. Colorado Rockies (35-47, minus-58, LW: 26)
27. Miami Marlins (35-48, minus-39, LW: 28)
26. Chicago White Sox (36-43, minus-80, LW: 27)
25. Cincinnati Reds (36-44, minus-35, LW: 22)
24. Oakland A’s (38-47, plus-49, LW: 23)
23. Seattle Mariners (38-44, minus-40, LW: 24)
22. Boston Red Sox (39-45, minus-43, LW: 25)

“Why Robinson Cano’s Gigantic Deal Is Smart for the Mariners” is a headline that made sense when the move went down in December 2013. In the four years leading up to that offseason, according to WAR, Cano had been better than all but two players (Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto). Over that stretch, he combined explosive power (29 homers a year) with a high-contact, high-average approach (.300 or better each of those years) and one of the best gloves in the league at a premium, up-the-middle position. The long-standing idea that second basemen were highly vulnerable to injuries and thus most likely to crater in their thirties? Not necessarily true, and certainly debatable in the case of Cano, a player who hadn’t missed more than three games in any of the previous seven seasons. As for the notion that paying Cano $24 million a year in his late thirties and past age 40 would be a disaster? With leaguewide salary inflation combined with the profits the M’s could bank on the front end of the deal, they really just needed Cano to be a five-to-seven-win player in those first few years for the deal to be a win.

Cano’s power numbers did fall off sharply in 2014, with his home run total of 14 tying a career low. But Safeco Field is one of the worst hitter’s parks in baseball, and the change from the short-porched lefty hitters’ haven that is Yankee Stadium was especially stark. Considering the park effects, Cano’s lower homer total and reduced .454 slugging average didn’t look so bad; combine them with a .314 batting average and .382 OBP that were perfect matches for his Bronx résumé, plus the usual durability (157 games played), and you still had a five-win player. Although he couldn’t take all the credit, Cano’s arrival was a big reason the M’s vaulted to 87 wins and a near playoff berth.

Right now, that kind of productivity looks like a distant memory. We’ve reached the halfway point of the season, and Cano looks much closer to a replacement-level player than a six-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger winner. He has hit only five homers and is batting just .248/.289/.363 — 18th among 22 batting-title-qualified second basemen. Yet it’s the drop in other numbers that’s the bigger cause for concern. Cano is striking out more (18 percent of plate appearances) than he ever has. He’s walking less often than he has in six years, thanks to a drop in intentional walks1 and a pullback in plate discipline. Beyond that, the discouraging signs abound: more first-pitch strikes than we’ve seen in six years, more swinging strikes than we’ve seen ever, and an in-zone strikeout rate that while still solid compared to the rest of the league represents his second-worst mark ever. Combine Cano’s struggles with awful seasons from Mike Zunino and Dustin Ackley, Hisashi Iwakuma’s injury, major bullpen regression, and a bunch of other factors, and you have one of the most disappointing teams in baseball.

If you’re a Mariners fan looking for a silver lining, there’s this: Nobody knows what the hell’s going on right now. Neither conversations with major league sources nor any scouting or statistical information would lead you to believe that Cano, who has missed three games this season, is hurt.2 He’s still hitting the ball hard — he’s 17th in average mph among 116 hitters with at least 150 at-bats. And his .289 batting average on balls in play, 33 points below his career mark, looks like a fluke and a major reason for his ugly numbers this season.

The best guess here is that Cano is simply testing the limits of what we can call a slump through a combination of bad luck and bad hitting. Through 60 games last season, he hit a healthy .333 — but also struck out three times more than he walked, posted a weak Isolated Power mark of just .093, and hit a measly two home runs. Russell Carleton’s research tells us that home run rate starts to stabilize around this point of the season, and Cano does have three homers in his past 12 games. Cano’s on-base percentage looks terrifying right now, but that stat typically takes closer to 500 plate appearances — nearly a full season — before we can truly start to trust it.

There will come a time when Cano’s reflexes and bat speed will deteriorate to the point where he’ll be little more than a spare part. But at age 32, with just a smattering of evidence to go on, it’s probably premature to say that we’re already there. The Mariners would need to play at a 100-win pace (or better) to make the playoffs this year, and that’s a long shot. But the future could be brighter in 2016 and beyond, assuming we start seeing glimpses of the old Cano. And unless this is a really sudden case of Dale Murphy 2.0, we probably will.

Bad and Bloated

With a number of expensive and unproductive names like Matt Kemp dotting the roster, the Padres search for a way forward.

21. San Diego Padres (39-45, minus-44, LW: 18)
20. Atlanta Braves (40-42, minus-27, LW: 20)
19. Arizona Diamondbacks (40-42, plus-1, LW: 19)
18. Cleveland Indians (38-43, minus-21, LW: 21)
17. New York Mets (42-41, minus-11, LW: 17)
16. Minnesota Twins (43-39, plus-4, LW: 16)

The Matt Kemp deal never looked particularly great for the Padres. Along with the possibility of receiving an in-decline star, San Diego shipped off Yasmani Grandal, a good catcher just entering his prime. Still, none of that automatically made the deal a bad one, especially since L.A. agreed to cover $31 million of Kemp’s remaining salary and San Diego was trying to recover from years of being a perennially dull team that lacked both power and personality. Yet, as we approach the season’s midpoint, it looks like San Diego got its worst-case scenario: There’s mounting evidence that their new right fielder is one of the worst all-around players in baseball.

Kemp’s problems date back to 2012, the year after his MVP-caliber breakout season. That’s when the injuries started, with a recurring hamstring issue zapping his speed and outfield range and a hurt left shoulder sapping his power. The health challenges attacked again in 2013, as a left ankle injury knocked Kemp out of the lineup for nearly two months. Add up those two seasons and Kemp played barely more than half the games on the Dodgers’ schedule, with diminishing returns: His .270/.328/.395 batting line in ’13 was the worst of his career, as were the six home runs he hit that year. Then, a couple of weeks before Opening Day 2014, Kemp hit the shelf again, this time with a right ankle injury. The first two months of Kemp’s season produced a .238/.291/.398 batting line, plus more horrific outfield play, making it clear that he no longer belonged in center field and probably wasn’t even an asset in a corner spot. Not yet at his 30th birthday, there was reason to wonder if Kemp might be done as a quality major league player.

Taking the previous two seasons and change into account, Kemp’s .311/.372/.561 four-month finishing kick in 2014 looks like one of the most fortuitous stretches by any hitter in Dodgers history. That’s the stretch that enabled the blockbuster trade to happen, and now the Padres find themselves with a player who’s finally healthy … but has still been terrible. In 83 games, Kemp is hitting just .241/.282/.359, with six homers and the lowest Isolated Power mark of his career. Kemp also ranks just 25th among all right fielders in Defensive Runs Saved. That combination makes him the second-worst player in all of baseball this year by Wins Above Replacement among batting-title-eligible position players, ahead of only White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

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Just barely into his thirties, Kemp could certainly rebound, assuming he can find the sweet spot between continued health and the return of his power stroke, but that possibility is not powerful enough to clear up San Diego’s murky future. As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote recently, the players that Padres GM A.J. Preller gave up to fuel his offseason buying spree suddenly look better than expected half a season later: Grandal has turned into a borderline elite catcher; Jace Peterson looks like a playable everyday major league second baseman; right-hander Matt Wisler made his major league debut after the surprising April Craig Kimbrel trade and looks like a solid keeper; Derek Norris has played well as a Padre, but the Friars might end up regretting trading Jesse Hahn; and none of that counts 21-year-old lefty Max Fried, who has a chance to add to the Braves’ supply of exciting young pitchers if/when he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

If the Padres can’t reel off a big winning streak soon, they’ll have to think about trading some of their bigger-name players for younger and cheaper talent to ease up some of the payroll bloat and replenish the farm system. Justin Upton is a free agent at year’s end, and he would instantly become the best bat on the market if Preller opts to shop him around. Andrew Cashner has finally stayed healthy for an extended stretch, but he’s been a league-average starter this year and can test the open market post-2016, so there’s no guarantee he’d stick around. Tyson Ross has pitched considerably better, but he is free-agent-eligible after 2017, and hasn’t been able to put his swing-and-miss, heavy-ground-ball stuff together with consistent command and prolonged health. Then there’s the question of what to do with Kimbrel, who is owed about $30 million through the end of 2017 and might not be a great fit as a flame-throwing closer on a team that could use retooling. Heck, if Kemp goes on another hot streak, might Preller try to sell high before the next nasty slump or injury knocks him back down 10 pegs?

In a division led by the Dodgers, baseball’s richest team and one of its smartest, and the Giants, who are in the midst of a mini-dynasty, one thing is clear: The status quo won’t be good enough for San Diego.

Sabathia’s Sunk Cost

In pole position to win the AL East, the Yankees need to find a replacement for their highest-paid starter.

15. Texas Rangers (41-42, minus-19, LW: 15)
14. Detroit Tigers (41-40, minus-12, LW: 13)
13. Tampa Bay Rays (43-41, plus-2, LW: 9)
12. San Francisco Giants (42-41, plus-11, LW: 7)
11. Toronto Blue Jays (43-41, plus-86, LW: 11)
10. Baltimore Orioles (43-39, plus-51, LW: 8)
9. New York Yankees (44-38, plus-18, LW: 12)
8. Los Angeles Angels (44-38, plus-23, LW: 14)
7. Chicago Cubs (44-36, plus-21, LW: 10)

Here are CC Sabathia’s ERA and xFIP over the past five seasons:

2011 3.00 3.02
2012 3.38 3.20
2013 4.78 3.76
2014 5.28 3.11
2015 5.59 3.50

One stat shows a pitcher in spectacular decline; the other shows a pitcher who might’ve lost a little from age 30 to age 34, but not enough to freak out over. So what should we believe?

What xFIP attempts to quantify is how a pitcher fares once you (a) strip out the impact of defense, and (b) normalize his home run rate. That second point has always been a little problematic. Yes, a couple of gusts of wind here or there can make a dent in a pitcher’s home run rate, or more precisely his home-run-per-fly-ball rate. Sabathia was supernaturally consistent in his HR/FB rate throughout his prime, never going lower than 7.4 percent or higher than 8.8 percent from 2006 through 2011. Seeing those figures shoot up to a career-worst 23.3 percent last year and 18.1 percent this season (highest in the AL) might make you look at Sabathia’s poor results as some kind of fluke.

Thing is, we’ve now got PITCHf/x stats and batted-ball stats to help us better understand how and why a pitcher might succeed or fail. And in Sabathia’s case, it’s simple: The fearsome lefty who used to fire mid-90s heat with regularity is now throwing something closer to a batting-practice fastball, and hitters are feasting on it, whacking that pitch at a .355 clip in 2015.

The Yankees are aware of Sabathia’s fall from grace, an outlier stat or two — Sabathia has continued to pound the strike zone and ranks eighth in the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio — be damned. Nobody is taking the roughly $62 million left on Sabathia’s contract (or $42 million if his 2017 option doesn’t vest), and GM Brian Cashman has been around long enough to understand the concept of sunk costs. Thanks to the franchise’s wealth, the Yanks can make a simple decision based on talent alone: Should they send one of the most decorated pitchers in team history to the bullpen (or a wink-wink DL stint) and shop for a better option via trade? Or should they ride it out and hope that the big lefty rediscovers his lost abilities?

We’ll spare you another long preamble: When you’re throwing 90 mph meatballs down the heart of the plate, that’s not a problem that typically gets fixed, so Sabathia is less likely to bounce back than a hitter who’s not quite squaring the ball up, like Cano or Kemp. The good news here is that while few pundits picked the Yankees to win the AL East this year, we have enough evidence to suggest they’re not a fluke. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have found the fountain of youth and have 36 homers between them. Brett Gardner is playing well enough to warrant his first All-Star berth, and Brian McCann has sloughed off his bumpy 2014 campaign. Add a really good (and really tall) bullpen and you have a club with the underlying skills to support their record and their first-place status in a division that features several good teams but no great ones.

Once the big, bad wolf of every hot stove season, the Yankees have grown increasingly cautious with how they spend their money, and the Sabathia situation — with his sudden decline and all the money he’s still owed — is a good example of why. So while an All-Star left-hander in his prime like Cole Hamels makes lots of theoretical sense for a team that plays its home games in a launching pad for lefty hitters, the smart money is on the Bombers pursuing a pitcher with a less daunting contract attached. Scott Kazmir, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija can all test free agency three months from now, so they’d all make sense as cheap, effective rentals. Kazmir has been very good this season, and he’s a lefty, so he looks like a particularly nice fit.

FanGraphs gives New York the best World Series odds of any team in the American League, so the club finds itself once again in win-now mode. Between the injury concerns attached to Masahiro Tanaka and Ivan Nova, the erratic results of Nathan Eovaldi, and Sabathia’s sad-to-watch downfall, the newly restrained Yanks should at least consider one more (calculated) roll of the dice.

Deep Blue

The Dodgers are overflowing with talent, yet they’re being too patient with their shortstop position.

6. Washington Nationals (46-36, plus-39, LW: 6)
5. Kansas City Royals (46-33, plus-46, LW: 2)
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (47-34, plus-57, LW: 5)
3. Houston Astros (48-36, plus-57, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (46-37, plus-57, LW: 3)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (53-28, plus-91, LW: 1)

One of Andrew Friedman’s greatest skills as GM of the Tampa Bay Rays was his ability to squeeze maximum value out of every player on the 40-man roster. He liberally used the shuttle from Triple-A Durham, calling up and sending down interchangeable relief pitchers to keep his bullpen (and, by extension, his rotation) fresh. He wasn’t above a phantom DL stint or two when the need arose. And with the help of manager Joe Maddon, the Rays would remain loyal to struggling players and do everything in their power to get them back on track — for fear of losing even the smallest asset, something a penny-pinching team like Tampa Bay often has to do to succeed.

Well, old habits die hard. The Dodgers are currently carrying one of the worst everyday players in the league as their (nearly) everyday shortstop. At the same time, they have one of the best prospects in the game down in Triple-A. But Friedman’s uncommon patience — heightened by GM Farhan Zaidi and a measured, cerebral baseball operations staff — has kept Jimmy Rollins in Don Mattingly’s lineup and Corey Seager on the farm.

Unlike Cano or Kemp, Rollins is undoubtedly near the end of his career. He is 36 and showed signs of winding down back in 2013, when he set career lows (or near-career lows) in multiple offensive categories while also fading defensively. But a bounce-back 2014 campaign prompted the Dodgers to trade for him over the winter, costing them one of the prospects acquired along with Yasmani Grandal in the Matt Kemp deal. That rebound season now looks like an aberration: Rollins is batting just .208/.263/.322,3 and he has become a below-average defender whose best asset is that he’s not quite as bad as the car crash that was Hanley Ramirez. The Dodgers might be holding out a flicker of hope that Rollins can stage another rebound, but it’s likely that their patience is focused somewhere else right now.

That would be with Seager. The 21-year-old phenom annihilated Double-A pitching in his first 20 games this season, batting .375/.407/.675 and quickly earning a promotion to Triple-A. He’s slowed down a bit in Oklahoma City, but is still hitting a solid .282/.333/.467 through 57 games. There’s been talk of moving Seager — listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds — to a position, such as third base, better suited for someone that big. But the Dodgers have stuck to the old development idea of keeping a player at a premium position for as long as he can handle it, and Seager’s glove is said to be good enough to justify leaving his powerful bat at a position where so few players are good enough to scare pitchers.

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What the Dodgers need to figure out is how fast they want to push Seager. If Friedman were still running the Rays, a major part of that calculus would involve waiting until his top prospect had stayed in the minors long enough to eliminate the threat of starting the player’s free-agency and arbitration clocks a year early. The Dodgers, of course, don’t have any of those financial concerns, but the player-development community remains split on how to handle phenoms: Let them matriculate as long as possible in the minors so that they’re (hopefully) ready to play well and stick in the big leagues once they arrive, or challenge them with an aggressive promotion, the way teams have with younger prospects like Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton, and Francisco Lindor this year.

Then again, development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Dodgers specifically targeted Rollins and Howie Kendrick last winter, figuring that would give them two productive veterans who required only one-year commitments, thus building a bridge to a new generation of younger infielders for 2016 and beyond. But Rollins hasn’t produced, and while Kendrick has delivered as hoped, he’s kept big-power/weak-glove 28-year-old Alex Guerrero and his lackluster defense on the bench. Throw in the emergence of third baseman Justin Turner and the high-dollar signing of Cuban infielder Hector Olivera and you get a team with too many qualified infield candidates for too few spots.

When you have unlimited money and overflowing talent, there’s no reason to be too cute with the way you build your major league roster. Rollins might have a bit of a bounce left in him somewhere, and Seager might benefit from a couple more months in the minors, but the Dodgers really only have two holes that need plugging. The first is a starting pitcher, which everyone knows they’re going to address at some point before the trade deadline. The second is shortstop, and the best option to fill that void is just a short plane ride away.

This column has been updated to correct two errors: Matt Kemp is playing in right field, not left, and Tyson Ross is under team control through 2017, not 2016.

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, Jonah Keri, MLB Stats, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Jae-Gyun Hwang, Seattle Mariners, Robinson Cano, San Diego Padres, Matt Kemp, New York Yankees, CC Sabathia, Los Angeles Dodgers, Jimmy Rollins, Corey Seager

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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