Robinson Cano deal risky, but worth it for Mariners

SEATTLE — With the ink barely dry on his massive new contract, and with agent/hip-hop mogul Jay Z seated nearby, Robinson Cano flashed what can best be described a $240 million smile.

“I’m excited and happy,” the Mariners’ newest and biggest investment said Thursday. “I couldn’t be more happy than this.”

Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t be happy about that kind of contract?

Cano, a five-time All-Star with the New York Yankees, did everything he could to convince everyone that the 10-year deal he signed with the Mariners wasn’t about money.

“It felt like family,” the 31-year-old second baseman said. “That’s what you want.

“People say I left New York because I got money. It’s wasn’t about the money. It’s just that I was looking for a contract that I can be able to play and focus on the game, not worry about when I’m 37, 38, maybe do I have a job, am I able to play?”

But who are we kidding? This was in many ways about the money, both from Cano’s standpoint — “I didn’t feel respected. I didn’t see any effort,” is how he described the Yankees efforts towards keeping him — and more importantly in the long run, this was about the money the Mariners committed to adding a legitimate star to their lineup.

This signing, which general manager Jack Zduriencik described as “historic” showed the Mariners willingness to invest heavily — or to overpay depending on your point of view — to buy themselves not just a middle-of-the-lineup bat, but some big-league credibility. For too long, the Mariners have been Felix Hernandez and the no-name lineup. Last year, they became Felix, Hisashi Iwakuma and the no-name lineup, but the end result was the same: a paucity of offense and a too few victories.

For the Mariners to not only win more games, but to be taken seriously by their fans and other free agents, they had to take this risk, even if it meant agreeing to the third largest contract in baseball history. In the past two years, the Mariners have made a run at Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton, they tried to trade for Justin Upton, and all said no (Upton exercised a no-trade clause).

This time, thanks to a recruiting pitch by Hernandez — “That played a big role in my situation,” Cano said of Hernandez’s endorsement of the club — and yes, a very big check, a superstar finally said yes to the Mariners.

“We didn’t have the star,” Zduriencik said. “We just didn’t have the star at the moment, except for Felix, and Iwakuma doing what he did. We needed the position player impact guy, and we got him.”

Already the perception of the Mariners has changed since news of the deal broke last week, Zduriencik said. That may well have helped them land Corey Hart, who reportedly agreed to a deal with the Mariners Wednesday, and it should pay dividends down the road.

“I can tell you that there have been numerous phone calls from agents and players who view us slightly differently right now,” Zduriencik said. “When you look at having bookends of arguably one of the best pitchers in the game and arguably one of the best position players in the game, and all of the young players we have here who will be with us for quite a while, and a lot of people look at us going, ‘This is pretty exciting. Man, I’d like to be there right now. It looks like things are going the right direction.’”

The Mariners have scarred their fans far too much in the past to reasonably expect everyone to just jump in with both feet following this move, but it has to help. In the long run a contract this big could be damaging, though Zduriencik believes the early years of the contract could actually end up being a bargain for his club, but what other choice did they have? The Mariners went all-in on Cano because they had to try something. It’s a bold move, to be sure, but isn’t bold a welcome move from a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2001?

Asked if a contract of this magnitude puts pressure on him, Cano answered, “Honestly, no.”

“I feel like family here. I don’t feel like, ‘We paid you, you have to do everything next year.’”

Instead, Cano says his role is to produce and also to pass on to Seattle’s young players some of what he learned in New York from veterans like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

“I was the kid before, I got a chance to learn from guys who played for 10, 15, 20 years, I would say now is the time I can pass that on to young kids,” he said.

But while Cano might not feel a lot of pressure, you can bet the team on the hook for that money, as well as Zduriencik, the man who negotiated the deal, will feel that pressure going forward.

There’s a famous old story — in Mariners circles anyway — about the 1987 draft in which Seattle selected Ken Griffey Jr. with the No. 1 pick. Scouting director Roger Jongewaard loved Griffey and pushed for him to be the pick, but owner George Argyros was wary of the risk that comes with taking high school players in the first round, and preferred a college pitcher named Mike Harkey. Eventually Griffey would be the pick, but as Jongewaard once recalled, that pick came with a warning from Argyros: “OK, but if you do this and it doesn’t work, it will be your ass.”

Asked if he received a similar warning about spending $240 million, Zduriencik laughed, said no, then added, “I think I realized that. It didn’t have to be said, honestly. Let’s be real here.”

Zduriencik knows, as does the entire organization, that this deal, one way or another, is a game-changer; a franchise changer. It’s a risky move, to be sure, but one the Mariners had to make.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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