Robinson Cano was 31 years old when he left the Yankees for a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners in December 2013. The landscape for veteran free agents has changed plenty since then.
Cano is the last free agent to get a 10-year contract. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will reach free agency this winter at 26 years old, so they could be the next. But the notion of a player in his 30s signing for a decade has quickly grown antiquated.
Charlie Blackmon, the star center fielder for the Colorado Rockies, is 31 years old now, just as Cano was in 2013. But Blackmon passed up a chance at free agency Wednesday by signing an extension for three more years, plus two player options. Including this season, Blackmon is guaranteed $108 million through 2023 — a healthy sum, to be sure, but also a realistic appraisal of the changing value of older players.
Cano, at least, is motivated to prove that a 10-year deal can still make sense. The Mariners have not reached the playoffs with Cano, but he has remained an elite performer.
“I want to earn every penny that I get here,” Cano said in spring training, at the couch by his locker stalls in Peoria, Ariz. “I don’t want to be like those guys that, two or three years into their contract, they do really good and then they don’t care. I do care. I love this game so much, this is what I dreamed when I was a kid. When I retire, I don’t want to miss the game. I want to say I gave it everything I got, so now it’s time for me to hang up the shoes and go home.”
Cano entered this season with 301 career home runs, trailing only Jeff Kent (377) for homers by a player who primarily played second base. Now 35, Cano will have a strong Hall of Fame case if he finishes his career the way he plans.
“If you can have a good year at the age of 34, why not have it at 35?” said Cano, who hit .280 with 23 homers last season, and added another home run to win the All-Star Game. “If you keep working hard, you tell your body that you’re ready to go — not like guys that start sitting down, they’re gaining weight, they don’t care. I have fans out there, I have my son, I have to be a good example. I feel comfortable now because I got the money, but money’s not everything.”
Cano spoke about his reputation, citing the Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar as a source of pride.
“He’s a Latino, he’s one of our guys,” said Cano, listing other superstars from Latin America, from Juan Marichal to David Ortiz. “That’s how I want to be remembered, as a guy that was productive in this game, not a guy that just feels comfortable because he gets the money.”
As great as Alomar was, he played his final game at 36, the same age Cano will be this fall. By then, his contract will be only half over.
“I know a lot of people were like, why are you going to Seattle?” Cano said. “But for me it was more the 10 years — and this year’s a good example.”
He cited examples of the most recent free agent market that frustrated many players, whose hopes for long-term deals never materialized. Cano is off the market, almost certainly for good. He timed his big deal just right.
“This way,” Cano said, “I’ll be able to have a contract and prepare myself and not worry about, at the age of 37, ‘Am I ever going to get a job again?’”
Get Used to the ‘Bullpen Day’
Teams ask less and less of their starting pitchers these days, mainly because statistics tend to favor fresh relievers as the game goes on. As organizations grapple with the starter’s changing role, one team has essentially dropped the position for many of its games.
The Tampa Bay Rays offer further evidence of the vanishing traditional starter. The Rays use only three regular starters: Chris Archer, Blake Snell and Jake Faria. For the other two rotation spots, they are deploying some combination of their nine — yes, nine — relievers.
“I think we would all agree it’s challenging for young pitchers to come up and expect seven innings, 105, 110 pitches out of them every start,” Rays Manager Kevin Cash said. “So if we shorten the workload and we have an abundance of guys that are capable of doing that, in theory we believe that we can get more out of those guys.”
The Rays had planned to give a rotation spot to the former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi, but Eovaldi needed elbow surgery at the end of spring training. Two of the Rays’ better pitching prospects, Brent Honeywell and Jose DeLeon, have recently undergone Tommy John surgery.
So last Saturday against Boston, the Rays turned to Andrew Kittredge for the first 10 outs and Ryan Yarbrough for the next 12. Austin Pruitt was scheduled to start another bullpen game on Monday, before the Rays were snowed out at Yankee Stadium. Since his starter’s identity can change based on who he uses the night before, Cash has made sure to call or text the opposing manager as soon as he knows.
“We’re not trying to be secretive or play games,” he said.
Pruitt made eight starts for the Rays last season, and worked at least six innings in five of them. But he said the Rays were simply following the trends in the game.
“You’ve got the guys that are the best — Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer — those guys are going to be the horses and go as long as the manager needs them to, as long as they’re getting guys out,” Pruitt said. “But it is leaning towards starters going five innings and having some long guys in the bullpen to pick up some innings.”
Kittredge and Pruitt are 28, and neither has pitched a full season in the majors. Cash said his staff had given no resistance to the plan.
“They say, ‘O.K.,’” Cash said. “Most of them are young guys. They’re eager to get out there and pitch.”
Mickey Callaway, the Mets’ manager, said bullpen games tended to work well. Rather than call up a lesser starter from the minors, Callaway said, he could envision using long relievers like Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo to navigate the first five innings, and then turn things over to late-inning arms.
“If you ever watch a bullpen day, when it happens, they’re pretty effective,” Callaway said. “You don’t see blowout games when the team’s using their bullpen day often.”
The best example for Callaway came in Game 3 of the 2016 American League Championship Series, when he was the pitching coach for Cleveland. Trevor Bauer, the Indians’ starter, had to leave in the first inning when his pinkie — which he had cut while repairing a drone — started bleeding on the mound in Toronto. The Indians patched the rest of the game with six relievers, none for more than five outs, and won.
“We felt comfortable because we had a real good bullpen, first and foremost, but we could set up each one of those pitchers to face the hitters they should face,” Callaway said. “Before you knew it, we had an effective game.”
That game took place immediately after an off day, though, so every reliever was rested. With off days occurring much less frequently in the regular season, teams could quickly wear out their bullpens — or at least force extensive roster shuffling — if they lean too heavily on strategies best suited for October.
Ohtani Shakes Off Spring Struggles
Shohei Ohtani had four singles in 32 at-bats for the Los Angeles Angels in spring training. His performance on the mound was not much better. But Ohtani, the celebrated two-way rookie from Japan, had quite a first week when it counted.
As the designated hitter on opening day in Oakland, Ohtani singled in his first at-bat. In his first start as a pitcher, he struck out six in six innings to beat the A’s. In his first at-bat at home, against Cleveland, he drilled a three-run homer. In his next game, he homered off the Indians’ Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner.
The fast start, after the uneasy first impression, recalls the well-worn but charming tale of Ichiro Suzuki’s introduction to the majors at spring training with the Mariners in 2001. After watching Suzuki slap almost everything the opposite way, Manager Lou Piniella grew impatient with his much-hyped new star. Piniella told Suzuki’s interpreter that he needed to see bat speed, and asked if Suzuki ever pulled the ball.
“I watched as the interpreter went down to the end of the dugout, said something to Ichiro, and Ichiro nodded and smiled,” Piniella wrote last year in his memoir with Bill Madden.
“The next inning, he hit a high fastball onto the hill behind the right field fence. When he got back to the dugout he came up to me and said, ‘You happy now?’ I replied, ‘Yes, yes. I’m very happy. From here on out you can do whatever you want!’”
More than 3,000 hits later, Suzuki is still playing, back with the Mariners to extend a career that began with the Orix Blue Wave in 1992 — two years before Ohtani was born.
Published at Fri, 06 Apr 2018 21:06:26 +0000