Does it really matter how fast Mariners’ Cano runs to first?

The Mariners gave Robinson Cano one of the biggest contracts in baseball history because they needed to make a splash, and because they believe his bat can help them win games, and less significantly but still of importance, because he plays very good defense at second base.

Somewhere on the list of reasons to sign Cano between bunting ability and “his bobble head will be a big draw” is the speed with which Cano covers 90 feet on a routine ground ball. Yet Cano’s hustle, or lack thereof, on ground balls has been a big topic of conversation this week as the Mariners opened spring training with their first full-squad workout Tuesday.

To recap, Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long was critical of Cano in an interview with the New York Daily News earlier this week, which prompted Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon to respond strongly Tuesday. But while McClendon’s verbal smack-down of Long was entertaining, the bigger question is whether or not Cano’s effort in running out ground balls is really an issue as he prepares for his first season in Seattle.

Many of the quotes from Long in the Daily News article were complimentary, but the line that stood out was Long saying, “If somebody told me I was a dog. I’d have to fix that. When you choose not to, you leave yourself open to taking heat, and that’s your fault. For whatever reason, Robbie chose not to.”

You can say as many nice things as you want about a player, but when you call him a dog, that’s going to be what people notice. And that’s why McClendon probably felt he had no choice but to come back at Long, telling reporters in Arizona: “My concern is Robinson Cano in a Seattle Mariners uniform and what he does moving forward. I don’t give a damn what he did for Yankees. I have no concern whatsoever. We had a great talk this morning, and he’s looking forward to being very productive in a Seattle Mariners uniform and being a very good teammate, and that’s what’s important as we move forward.”

McClendon has talked about changing the culture within a losing organization, so while the importance of Cano’s trips down the first base line may or may not be of any real significance, the manager’s message does have meaning this early in the process of trying to turn a team around.

“One of the messages that I’m trying to send to my players is that we don’t have to take a backseat to anybody, and that includes the New York Yankees or anybody else,” McClendon said. “We’re the Seattle mariners, and my concern is my players and the family atmosphere that we build here. And anytime anybody attacks one of my players, then I’m going to defend him. And if you don’t like it, tough (stuff).”

While it will take a few months to know if McClendon’s take-a-backseat-to-nobody attitude will pay off, we can get into what started this little back-and-forth in the first place, because Cano’s sometimes less-than-full-speed jogs to first base are nothing new.

Yes, Cano probably will look a little lackadaisical on many of his groundouts this season, but does that really matter?

To try to quantify the value of hustling to first on every ground ball, crunched a whole lot of data and numbers, and while the explanation of their methods would take forever to explain, the result Baseball Prospectus came up with is that Cano likely costs himself roughly four infield hits per year. The article also notes that Cano’s only trip to the disabled list in his career came in 2006 when he injured his hamstring legging out a double, so it is possible Cano is weighing the likelihood of an injury vs. his chances of beating out a routine play. And since that 2006 season, Cano has played in at least 159 of 162 games every season.

So if four hits a year is the cost of having Cano’s production in the lineup every day, as well as his strong defense, you’d take that, right?

Yes, ideally it’d be preferable if every professional athlete looked like he or she were giving his or her full effort at all times. After all, if you’re the fan in the seats or watching on TV, you’re indirectly helping pay Cano’s massive salary, so doesn’t he owe you to try hard? Yes, he does, but is effort for sake of looking like you’re putting forth effort really that big a deal?

If Cano is working hard in other areas, and by all indications he is — Long also told the Daily News, “People don’t know how hard he worked, how many times he was the one asking me to do extra work in the cage” — is a jog down the first base line really a deal breaker if the guy gives the Mariners another season of .300-plus average, 25 or more home runs and 100-some RBI? Of course not.

Somehow Ken Griffey, Jr. managed to have a pretty decent career without sprinting to first on a significant number of ground balls, and if you saw him crash into walls, or score from first on a double, you know he was trying hard and cared plenty about the game.

As for the notion of setting a bad example, young Mariners players have enough to worry about, from securing jobs to earning future contracts to helping the team win that they’re going to work just as hard as they were or weren’t going to work before they saw Cano run 90 feet. If anything, Cano’s ability to produce, the extra time he spends in the cage and yes, his gigantic contract, should only motivate his teammates.

In the end, this will all come down to results. If Cano produces and if the Mariners win more games as a result, the only people who will be bothered by a jog down the first base line are also people who recently have actually used the phrase, “get off my lawn!” If he doesn’t, and if the Mariners head towards another losing season, well it’s still incredibly unlikely those things happened because of a lack of hustle to first.

In a perfect world, would it be better if Cano gave full effort on his way to first (while always staying healthy)? Sure. Is it really a big deal if he doesn’t? Hardly. And if you don’t like it, Kevin Long, well Lloyd McClendon has that answer for you.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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