The Seattle Mariners have passed the Robinson Cano test.
When Cano, Seattle’s stalwart second baseman, was suspended 80 games for testing positive for a banned substance on May 15, the Mariners were at a theoretical tipping point in their season. Seattle was 23-17 and a surprise presence among the best teams in the American League. Would the Mariners be able to hold their position minus arguably their most reliable source of offense?
The answer has been an emphatic, “Yes.” Not only has Seattle maintained its lofty position in the AL, heading into Thursday the Mariners actually had a substantially better record since Cano’s suspension (32-15, .681 winning percentage) than they did prior (.575 winning percentage). Seattle remains in hot pursuit of Houston atop the AL West, and the Mariners are miles in front of the chasing pack for a wild-card berth.
All of which begs the question: What do the Mariners do when Cano is reinstated on Aug. 14?
The easy answer is to slot Cano right back in at second base and into the No. 3 spot in the lineup. Cano coming back would be the equivalent of an expensive trade-deadline pickup, except he wouldn’t cost the Mariners a penny. Why wouldn’t a competing team be eager to add an impact hitter to the mix, especially one who’s already acclimated to the team and considered a leader in the clubhouse?
However, there’s a complicating factor. One of the stipulations of Cano’s suspension is that he’s ineligible for postseason play. Therefore, the Mariners have some hard thinking to do about what’s best for the team in the long run.
If Seattle was fighting for its playoff life, the decision would be considerably easier. The Mariners would need to do everything they could to win every possible game in an effort to end the organization’s 16-year playoff drought. That would mean getting all their best players onto the field, and thus mean putting Cano back into his regular spot.
But Seattle isn’t in a playoff battle. Going into Thursday the Mariners were seven games ahead of Oakland for the AL’s last wild-card spot, and that distance seemed to be growing on a daily basis. Fangraphs.com had Seattle’s playoff odds at 85.9 percent. That means Seattle, for the time being at least, doesn’t need to pull out all the stops to win every single game. Indeed, it may behoove the Mariners to do what makes the most sense for preparing the team to succeed in the postseason, when Cano won’t be available.
That scenario likely means keeping Dee Gordon at second base. Gordon, a career middle infielder, was converted to center field after being acquired by the Mariners in an offseason trade, as Seattle had no open spots on the infield. However, Gordon has been back at second, the position he played regularly the previous four seasons, since the loss of Cano, and he would presumably be Seattle’s second baseman in the postseason. Would the Mariners be better served returning Gordon to center to get Cano back into the lineup at second, thus risking Gordon’s defensive comfort at second base come playoff time? Or would it make more sense to keep Gordon at second to maintain defensive continuity?
An alternative would be for the Mariners to switch Cano to a position that wouldn’t disrupt the defense as much, such as designated hitter or first base. However, a move to DH would mean putting Nelson Cruz into the outfield, which not only would hurt the outfield defense, but increase the risk of a Cruz injury. A switch to first base wouldn’t be as disruptive as it would just displace Ryon Healy, who is not a Cano-level bat, to the bench. But Healy has been a contributor, and leaving him on the bench down the stretch risks him being rusty once the postseason arrives.
Would Cano be willing to accept being a bench bat for the final six weeks of the regular season? Could the Mariners find a trade partner willing to take on the final five-plus years of a 35-year-old’s 10-year, $240-million contract? Might it even make sense to not activate Cano at all?
The truth is the Mariners don’t need to answer these questions now. There’s still more than a month remaining of Cano’s suspension, and a lot can happen between now and Aug. 14. Maybe the Mariners will suffer through a swoon that puts them back into a playoff race, thus necessitating all hands on deck. Maybe someone will get injured, leaving a hole in the lineup that needs to be filled. Heck, the July 31 trade deadline is still on the horizon, and who knows what will come from that and how it may affect Seattle’s need for Cano.
But while the Mariners don’t need to answer these questions right now, they need to start thinking about them. And figuring out the best answers won’t necessarily be a straightforward — or comfortable — process.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.