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Seattle Mariners

Analysis: Looking back at the Mariners’ Robinson Cano trade after he’s been designated for assignment by the Mets

New York Mets' Robinson Cano (24) bats during a spring training baseball game against the New York Mets, Monday, April 4, 2022, in West Palm Beach, Fla.  (Associated Press)
Ryan Divish Seattle Times

HOUSTON — The news out of New York wasn’t surprising considering what his lack of production thus far this season and the lack of availability due to suspension last season.

Still, it was a bit jarring, perhaps due to name recognition and association to the Mariners, to see a flurry of tweets from Mets media on Monday morning, all with a similar topic: Robinson Cano has been designated for assignment.

With teams forced to trim their active rosters down from 28 to 26, the Mets decided to move on from Cano despite owing him $37.5 million on his 10-year, $240 million contract, which was originally signed with the Mariners.

Cano, 39, had played in 12 games for the Mets — seven at second base and five at designated hitter — posting a .195/.233/.268 slash line with a homer and three RBI. He missed the entire 2021 season while serving a 100-game suspension for violating the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement for a second time.

Given his age and money remaining on his contract, no team will trade for him or claim him off waivers and take on that commitment. Once he clears waivers, Cano will opt for free agency.

Regardless of what becomes of outfielder Jarred Kelenic, the trade engineered by Jerry Dipoto that sent Cano to the Mets, along with reliever Edwin Diaz, will likely remain one of his best simply for getting out from under the 10-year, $240 million commitment to Cano when his value and reputation were dwindling.

It was a serendipitous development for Dipoto and the Mariners when Cano’s former agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, became the Mets GM after the 2018 season. Dipoto, who was in the process of starting the Mariners’ “step back” rebuild, contacted Van Wagenen immediately about Cano going back to New York and dangled Diaz, who was coming off a 57-save season, as the value in the deal.

On Dec. 3, 2018, almost six years to the day he signed with Seattle, Cano was traded to the Mets as part of a massive and stunning seven-player deal after five drawn-out days of trade speculation.

The Mariners sent Cano, Diaz and $20 million in cash to the Mets in exchange for five players: Kelenic, who was a top prospect at the time, veteran outfielder Jay Bruce and right-handed pitchers Anthony Swarzak, Gerson Bautista and Justin Dunn.

Had it not been for the massive amount of media leaks from the Mets about the trade in the days leading up to it, sparking an outcry from Mets fans, sources have said on multiple occasions the Mariners would’ve paid $25-30 million in cash but received versatile hitter Jeff McNeill instead of Bautista. When McNeill was replaced by Bautista, the Mariners’ cash requirement was reduced.

Seattle still owes $7.5 million on the Cano contract but paid less than the $20 million due to his suspension.

While moving on from Cano was a coup for Dipoto, the trade that appeared so lopsided in the Mariners’ favor in terms of on-field production has yet to reach that potential.

Kelenic, 22, has yet to blossom into the All-Star level player that scouts expected or even an established MLB player. In 114 MLB games over the past two seasons, he has produced a -0.3 WAR with a .175/.257/.342 slash line.

The other four players the Mariners received are no longer in the organization.

Bruce was traded a few months into the 2019 season to the Phillies. Seattle received third baseman Jake Scheiner, who is now playing for Class AA Arkansas.

Dunn was traded to the Reds in March along with prospect Brandon Williamson and outfielder Jake Fraley for outfielder Jesse Winker and third baseman Eugenio Suarez. Dunn made his MLB debut at the end of the 2019 season and was in the opening day rotation for the shortened 2020 season, providing mixed results. A shoulder issue sidelined him for much of 2021.

Bautista had a 100-mph fastball that was somehow very hittable. He bounced between the big league team and Class AAA Tacoma, never finding success. He was released in 2021 and is currently pitching in the Mexican League.

As for Cano, it has been stunning decline in terms of production and reputation.

Once on track toward Hall of Fame consideration as one of the most gifted second basemen, he was suspended twice for violating the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement, testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.

The Mariners shocked the baseball world in December 2013 when they signed Cano, who was 31 at the time, to a 10-year, $240 million contract. It was an effort to bring legitimacy to a team that had Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Hisashi Iwakuma and a touted farm system.

One of the biggest free agents on the market, Cano was expected to re-sign with the Yankees and continue a Hall of Fame path with the team that signed and developed him. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman refused to give in to the salary demands of Cano and Van Wagenen. The Yankees had reportedly capped their offer at 7 years, $175 million.

The Mariners swooped in with an offer that was above market value and well above what anyone else was offering.

The Cano signing was supposed to signal a change in direction for the Mariners and bring a level of credibility to the organization as well as some much-needed production to a stagnant offense. He played in 157 games, posting a .314/.382/.454 slash line with 37 doubles, two triples, 14 homers and 82 RBI while dealing with an intestinal parasite in the final months of the season. The 2014 team was in postseason contention till midway through the final game of the regular season before being eliminated.

But that was as close to the postseason as Seattle came with Cano, who was an All-Star in 2014, 2016 and 2017. After undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia after a disappointing 2015 season, Cano put up a monster 2016 season. He had a .298/.350/.533 slash line with 33 doubles, 39 homers, 103 RBI in 161 games.

The relationship with the Mariners fell apart during the 2018 season when he was suspended for 80 games because of a positive test for a diuretic — Furosemide — that’s often used a masking agent for performance enhancing drug use.

Per the joint drug testing agreement, a player isn’t automatically suspended when testing positive for a diuretic. The player is retested, and an independent investigator determines whether the diuretic was used to avoid detection of a banned substance. If so, it is treated as a positive test result.

The independent investigator determined that Cano used the diuretic as a masking agent. A similar investigation by MLB yielded the same ruling.

The positive test had actually occurred in the offseason, and Cano had appealed the decision but didn’t tell teammates or the Mariners. When he suffered a fractured hand after getting hit by a pitch on May 14 and was expected to miss two months, he dropped his appeal and served the suspension.

It stunned and frustrated teammates. His return after 80 games didn’t go as planned as the Mariners, who were already fading from the postseason race, shuffled positions and responsibilities around to fit him back into the lineup.