After Monday’s game in Baltimore, the Mariners will be exactly halfway through Robinson Cano’s 80-game suspension. They’ve thrived beyond anyone’s wildest expectation without him.
But make no mistake: The Mariners miss Robinson Cano. And they still need Robinson Cano.
It would be wrong to interpret the Mariners’ success sans Cano – a 25-14 record even after the three-game sweep by the Yankees in New York last week and losing two of three in Boston over the weekend – as any sort of referendum on whether they’re better with or without Cano.
Ignore what your eyes might think they’re seeing. It’s a mirage, folks.
Harold Reynolds, the former Mariner second baseman now working as an analyst for the MLB Network, told Dave “Softy” Mahler on KJR that he would bench Cano when he came off the suspended list Aug. 14.
While acknowledging that it won’t happen, Reynolds said, “For me looking on, this is a different team without him. I’d just say, ‘I’ll see you next spring.’ Use him as a pinch-hitter, maybe. But for now, the team is playing too well without him.”
I like and respect Harold, and I believe he’s expressing the sentiment of a segment of Mariners fan. But I think this is the embodiment of a classic fallacy: Causation doesn’t mean correlation.
The Mariners soared into command of a playoff spot despite missing Cano, not because of it. Oh, I’m sure in the immediate aftermath of the shocking news of his suspension (one day after they thought they had lost him for just a few weeks with a broken right hand), there was an energizing boost from the realization that they had to rally together. But that can only take you so far.
What led them to an extraordinary stretch of 22-6 from May 18 to June 15 – and a stronghold on the American League’s second wild card after an 11-day stint either tied with or ahead of the Houston Astros in the AL West standings – is not the liberating riddance of the hindrance that was Cano.
It was a stretch of brilliant starting pitching in which they allowed two or fewer runs 11 times in a span of 16 games. It was a long stretch of games against mostly sub-par opponents. And it was an unsustainable surge of offensive brilliance by Jean Segura, who batted .397 for a full month, from May 15 to June 15.
When the pitching inevitably began to regress to the mean – at about the same time they faced two likely 100-win teams, the Yankees and Red Sox – they lost five in a row. You could pick situation after situation in which the presence of Cano could have made a difference.
Nearly lost in the Mariners’ surge has been an alarming drop-off by the offense since Cano went out of the lineup. In the 39 games before Cano departed, the Mariners put up a .763 OPS and averaged 4.67 runs per game. In the 39 games that followed – which produced that 25-14 record – they had a .716 OPS and averaged 4.0 runs per game.
In other words, Cano’s absence has been keenly felt, but merely masked by other factors. Remember, he was on pace for a 7.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which would have been his highest as a Mariner. Without Cano, Mitch Haniger has been forced into the No. 3 hole in the batting order, where he headed into Baltimore with a .697 OPS, compared to 1.026 from the more comfortable sixth spot in the order. And with Kyle Seager struggling, the Mariners are clearly missing a strong left-handed presence in the lineup.
All that is to say that no matter what sort of anger or annoyance you might harbor toward Cano for his indiscretion – testing positive for a banned substance – the ballclub will welcome back his bat, eagerly, on Aug. 14.
At that point, 43 games will remain in the regular season as the Mariners pursue their first playoff berth in 17 years. While they have put themselves in strong position to end that drought, it’s by no means a guarantee. The return of Cano in mid-August might be the best offensive boost that any contender receives during the stretch drive.
The question, of course, is how do the Mariners use Cano? It is a unique conundrum in recent times – a cornerstone player who will be needed for the final six weeks, yet is ineligible for the postseason. Complicating matters is that Dee Gordon, converted to center field upon arrival in Seattle, moved back to man Cano’s second-base position and has been doing it with defensive distinction.
General manager Jerry Dipoto has indicated, rightly, that it will be a job share in which Gordon will continue to see some time at second base to remain sharp for the playoffs. Cano could shuffle between second base, first base and DH.
It may, in fact, be a preview of the future. There’s an argument to be made that at this stage of their careers, Gordon is the superior second baseman. There’s also an argument that for all the admirable vigor with which Gordon threw himself into learning center field, the Mariners defense is demonstrably better with Guillermo Heredia at the position.
Cano would no doubt resist moving off second base on a permanent basis, but he’s lost much of his leverage and bargaining power with a damaging PED suspension on his resume. With five more years at $24 million annually remaining on Cano’s contract, the Mariners need to be thinking about ways to keep him productive as long as they can. A transition to first or DH could be the avenue.
But that’s a 2019 problem. In 2018, Cano put the Mariners in a huge bind with his suspension – and could help drive them to the finish line with his return.