By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
Question: Do the Mariners change Cano, or does he change the Mariners?
It’s just possible, you know, that much of the baseball world has it wrong in trying to assess how All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano will be affected by his move to SoDo from the South Bronx.
What if it’s the other way around?
Oh, Cano will be affected — no question there — by his decision to shed Yankee pinstripes, and the cachet of playing for the most renown franchise in sports, for life with a club that has never experienced a World Series.
He insists he is ready for this.
“The whole offseason I knew where I was going,” Cano said. “Whatever is in the past, I’ll leave in the past. I’m just focusing now on getting ready for the season.
“All I can tell you now is that I’m happy to be here. I’m excited. It’s even more fun than I thought it would be … I feel like I’m a big part of this team.”
That fun will be tested, severely perhaps, in the coming weeks, months and (yes) years, but what seems to draw little attention is the possible impact Cano might have on the Mariners.
“This is one of the best players in the game,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “You put him in our clubhouse, around what we think is a group of very talented young players, and it benefits everyone.”
Exhibit A: The net drill.
Cano has long honed his swing by placing a large upright screen on the outside corner of the plate running into the right-hand batter’s box.
The drill forces a batter to keep his hands inside the ball while pivoting with the lower half of his body. The result, in Cano’s case, is one of game’s prettiest and most productive swings.
First baseman Justin Smoak soon joined in. When he pulled several pitches that stayed fair, rather than hooking foul, he barked, “I like it,” and became a convert.
By the end of camp, it wasn’t unusual to see several players taking part in the drill. As manager Lloyd McClendon observed, “That’s the impact of Robinson Cano.”
And that, in a single snapshot, is a large reason the Mariners chose to invest $240 million on one player over the next 10 years.
They know what everyone else knows; viewed strictly in terms of Cano’s likely on-field production, the deal is virtually impossible to defend even though Cano, at 31, is unquestionably one of the game’s premier players.
“I think he’ll age well,” Zduriencik said in mounting just such a defense. “And if you look at his numbers, as a second baseman, he’s putting up All-Star first-base numbers.
“So even through the course of this contract, should it tail off a little, it’ll still be pretty good. He could play third base, probably first base; we have DH in this league so you can preserve him a little more.”
Maybe, but age 31 is generally the peak.
Even top players rarely hold their form for more than a few years after reaching their 30s. The notable exceptions, though, include Cano’s former teammate, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
Can Cano do the same?
“I played with him for nine years,” Jeter said. “So I’m going to miss him a lot. We got pretty close throughout the years, but I understand it’s a business. I wish him the best. Everyone knows how I feel about him as a player.”
Read those words again because they are pure Jeter. Rational, professional and courteous but also accompanied by an Ali-like footwork that permits him to weave and dodge in any situation. Jeter never rattles.
Cano observed Jeter’s deft precision for nine years from the edge of a non-blinking spotlight in the toughest of media markets. And if his early weeks with the Mariners are any indication, Cano not only observed; he learned.
“He always was there for me,” Cano said. “All I can say is thank you (for the help over) all of those years. He was guy who, if he saw something, he’d tell me right away. Those are the guys you want to be around.”
Cano recognizes his status as the Mariners’ de facto spokesman on all issues. That comes with the $240 million, and it’s easy when things go well. Part of what makes Jeter special is an ability to project calm amid chaos.
So consider three occasions Cano already has handled that could have tripped up many players.
The first test came immediately. Many in the media, mirroring the public’s general attitude, probed Cano with ill-concealed disbelief that he would reject Yankees prestige and money for greater riches in Seattle.
Cano turned it aside by saying he never felt the Yankees made a serious effort to retain him.
“I didn’t get any respect,” he said Dec. 13 at his introductory news conference at Safeco Field. “I didn’t see any effort. We never got to the point where there was a close commitment to anything.”
Now … you can choose, as many did and still do, not to believe that. You can conclude Cano and his star agent Jay-Z merely chased the gold. (And, hey, isn’t that how Seattle grew and prospered?)
But Cano never wavered from his statement, through repetitive inquiries, that he picked Seattle because he saw it as the best fit for various reasons.
“I wanted to focus long-term,” he said. “About when I’m 37, 38, will I be able to play if I keep working hard? With the Mariners, yes. I want to do my business to win the games.”
Cano then gently underscored his escape from New York by arriving at spring camp sporting a neatly trimmed beard; all facial hair has long been prohibited by the Yankees.
“It’s a little different,” he said through a big smile. “Now I know I don’t have to shave every two days. Oh, yeah, I’m going to keep that. Let’s see how good I do this year with this.”
Next issue: Shortly after camp opened, Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, intentionally or not, picked a fight by criticizing Cano’s work habits — specifically, a disinclination to run hard to first on routine grounders.
“If somebody told me I was a dog,” Long barked to the New York Daily News, “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.”
Cano shrugged off Long’s comments by saying, “I don’t even pay attention to that. I just want to talk about Seattle. I’m here now. Whatever they said, I don’t want to pay attention to that.”
McClendon reacted differently; he blistered Long in a manner that drew increased attention — but that attention funneled toward McClendon and Long and away from Cano.
“I don’t give a (darn) what he did for Yankees,” McClendon raged. “I have no concern whatsoever… Anytime anybody attacks one of my players, I’m going to defend him. And if you don’t like it, tough (stuff).”
What drew far less notice was Cano and Long talked privately shortly thereafter. Cano soon reported everything was “cool” between the two, and the issue quickly dissipated.
A few weeks later, Cano created a stir by telling a respected and influential reporter from CBSSports.com that the Mariners needed to acquire more good players.
Asked specifically about erstwhile Mariner Kendrys Morales (who remains unsigned), Cano said: “I’m not gonna lie. We need an extra bat. We have many left-handed hitters. We need at least one more righty.”
The remarks barely created a ripple in the Northwest.
For one thing, club officials freely admit they’d like to add another right-handed bat. As Zduriencik deadpanned when asked about Cano’s comments: “I don’t think he’s alone in thinking that.”
Cano’s comment also created no stir within the organization because, from the time he signed with the Mariners, he stressed he shouldn’t be viewed as a one-man, fix-it plan.
“I wouldn’t say it’s only going to be my face,” Cano argued. “You’re going to talk about Felix (Hernandez). He’s a guy who has been here a long time, and he’s one of the best in the game.
“Me, myself? There’s nothing that I can do by myself. This is about the team. It’s not about one player. We win as a team, and we lose as a team.”
Further, his consistent response throughout the offseason when asked about specific players who were (or might be) available in free agency or via a trade was something like: “He’s a good player. We need good players.”
Queried about the club’s interest in Nelson Cruz, a power-hitting outfielder who eventually signed with Baltimore, Cano said, “I know Nelson. Great guy. We all know what he can do with his bat and in the outfield.”
Cano made similar comments about Morales, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and others. But this time, his words generated national attention and many concluded he already had second thoughts over leaving the Yankees.
Again, Cano didn’t rattle.
He simply refuted the suggestion that he regretted his decision to sign with the Mariners and moved on. Again, you can choose not to believe him, but he muted what loomed as a possible distraction.
It was all straight from the Book of Jeter, and none of it went unnoticed in the Mariners’ clubhouse.
“Anytime you add a guy like Cano,” third baseman Kyle Seager said, “that changes the whole dynamic. It doesn’t matter what the team is… That’s only going to help everybody to relax.”
None of this matters much, of course, if Cano doesn’t perform on the field. Jeter is proof of that, too. Jeter isn’t Jeter merely because he talks a good game.
Few, though, expect Cano not to be Cano at the plate and in the field.
“Just to have his bat in the lineup and his glove in the field – it’s a game-changer,” left fielder Dustin Ackley said. “You see some plays he makes, and they just change games. That’s huge stuff. His bat speaks for itself.”
And it’s just possible that Cano provides some presence along with that skill. That maybe, just maybe, he changes the Mariners more than they change him. After all, he’s well-schooled to the task.
“I was able to grow up in an organization,” he said, “where everybody around me was, I don’t want to say older than me, but they were guys who have been successful in the league.
“Guys who had hit 30 homers, had 100 RBI and won a lot of championships. Obviously it was great for me because you have to learn. Everywhere you looked, you had someone you could ask about the game.”
Now, he sees it from the other side.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids here who are hungry,” Cano said. “They can play the game, and it’s a matter of time (before they are successful). I was a young kid, too, and I had to ask a lot.
“You face a guy one time, and he gives you a fastball down the middle. Then you face him with the bases loaded, and he gives you a change-up. Those are the things you learn when you have guys you can ask.”
So, can Cano lead as well as play? We’ll see. Starting Monday.