The Mariners have entered this offseason fully intending to rebuild, and have made good on that promise, trading both Mike Zunino and James Paxton away thus far this offseason, and attempting to move Cano and his $120 million owed on the remainder of his contract falls well in line with that strategy as well. Cano’s age (36) and that hefty contract might give anyone pause—but could a Cano deal be of some use to the Mets?
Let’s first address the elephant in the room: a Cano deal would not be a strict salary dump. Despite his age, Cano has been a top-5 2B in the MLB throughout his career up through today. Though Cano missed half the season with a PED violation (Cano was caught taking a masking agent and not a strict PED, but the substance is still banned under MLB guidelines), Cano finished 9th in fWAR among 2B last year while hitting .303/.374/.471. Cano’s wRC+ ranked 1st among 2B in 2018 with at least 300 PA.
That Cano has remained so productive through his age-36 season is a sign that Cano still has plenty left in the tank—as a high-contact spray hitter who doesn’t strike out a lot and draws a good number of walks, there are few red flags in Cano’s profile that might indicate that Cano is due for a dramatic decline any time soon.
Cano has also been perhaps the healthiest player in the major leagues since his debut—2018 was the first season that Cano failed to play in at least 150 games since 2006. Cano didn’t even miss time in 2018 because he wasn’t healthy—he was only suspended. Sure, Cano is getting older, which naturally increases his risk of injury—but Cano has done a superb job of keeping himself healthy to date, and for the oft-injured Mets, that health could represent a boon.
So there’s reason to think that Cano might age more like Adrian Beltre and less like Albert Pujols. Cano should remain, at a bare minimum, a productive/starter level player on average for the duration of his contract, and there are likely some All-Star caliber seasons still left. Cano should be an attractive option for a contender—even at his age, there are few better options available at 2B.
Still, the Mets might have one of those options. Jeff McNeil hit at a better clip than Cano did last season (.329/.381/.471) and looked stellar defensively—even though there’s reason to believe that McNeil might regress from his torrid pace, he still projects (via Steamer) as a comparable option to Cano in terms of overall production. Why should the Mets feel compelled to go out and get a player of similar caliber who plays the same position but costs significantly more?
Two reasons. First, it’s never a bad idea to have a bat like Cano’s in the lineup, and the Mets shouldn’t be afraid to shuffle things around to get Cano in the lineup. McNeil has played primarily at 2B and has scouted as a 2B or utility player for most of his minor league career, but McNeil has played a not-insubstantial number of games at 3B.
McNeil might still end up as a defensive liability (as prognosticated by scouting reports) at 3B thanks to his average arm, but depending on their performance, either he or Todd Frazier could move to a utility role depending on how well they hit. It takes some shuffling and the Mets’ infield defense would certainly take an overall hit, but the Mets have been successful in the past with worse defenses on the infield.
Second, the Mariners would be unlikely to send just Cano over—Rosenthal has indicated that the Mariners might be inclined to send over a top prospect in addition to Cano as opposed to additional MLB talent, but if the Mets can get Cano and Mariners closer Edwin Diaz in the deal, they will have addressed two of their biggest needs in one fell swoop.
Jeurys Familia‘s trade last year in the face of his pending free agency represented a damning blow to the top of the Mets’ bullpen, but bringing in one of the best closers in the game (a closer who is still in pre-arbitration) would easily make the cost of Cano’s contract well worth it. If the Mets could swing a deal for a top 5 2B and a top 5 closer, it could be the coup of the offseason.
Still, this all comes with a large caveat—trading for Cano is not the optimal move for the Mets.
If the Mets are willing to take on large contractual obligations to improve their infield, then they should be seriously looking at free agent Manny Machado, who is ten years younger than Cano, a more productive hitter, a better fielder, and a known commodity at 3B, where the only infielder who would be displaced is the more-disposable Todd Frazier. The Mets should not consider a trade for Cano while superior options in free agency are still available such as Machado.
Trading for Cano is fitting a square peg in a round hole—it takes a good degree of cramming and it improves the team, but why not simply make the smarter move if it’s available?