Robinson Cano's 2015 season was highlighted by a massive early slump, and a strong second half while playing with a double hernia, multiple baserunning mistakes and plenty of offseason criticism. The Mariners need the 2016 season to feature a little less drama and more consistency.

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Previewing the Mariners’ second-base position has been relatively repetitive the past few years and likely won’t be different in years to come.

Robinson Cano is the everyday second baseman, and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

So this spring-training position preview of the second-base position is all about Cano. Mariners pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz., on Feb. 19, and the first full-squad workout is Feb. 24.

And even though Cano is the unquestioned everyday second baseman of the present and future, his play yields a fair amount debate among fans throughout baseball.

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 The past

Robinson Cano reacts to flying out in the third, stranding Logan Morrison on first base in the second game of a four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Robinson Cano reacts to flying out in the third, stranding Logan Morrison on first base in the second game of a four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

Former Mariners outfield coach Andy Van Slyke said Cano’s 2015 season was one of the worst he had seen from an everyday player in 20 years of professional baseball. Realistically, it wasn’t even one of the worst for the Mariners, in their history (see Chone Figgins) or in 2015.

Cano’s overall numbers were better than those of an average MLB player:

But the Mariners aren’t paying Cano $24 million a season to be better than average. And the overall numbers were down from his typical production. The reason for that dip stemmed largely from a miserable first two months of the season.

Here are Cano’s numbers up to June 1:

 

 

Here are Cano’s numbers after June 1:

So why did he struggle the first two months?

On July 5, USA Today ran a story highlighting Cano’s tumultuous start, in which he mentioned the loss of his grandfather during spring training and discussed lingering stomach issues caused from a parasite he had contracted at the end of the 2014 season.

Cano had been asked about the stomach issue weeks before that story was reported, but he downplayed its effect on his play. He was healthy when he came to spring training, but the illness left him with acid reflux. Cano had difficulty finding a diet that didn’t lead to vomiting or serious discomfort.

Mariners sources said it more of an issue during spring training and three weeks into the season as he tried to find a diet that allowed him to eat multiple full meals throughout a day.

There was some internal debate how much the issue bothered Cano during his awful start. Cano said the problems with food and the acid reflux left him sluggish and low on energy and made his bat slow.

“I just didn’t feel like myself,” he said.

But there was something more to the issue.

Mariners coaches, internal scouts and opposing scouts noted that his approach at the plate had changed from 2014. He was swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and trying to pull pitches that he should have dumped into left field for singles or possibly driving for doubles. He had strayed from what made him successful.

Was it a search for more power to avoid the criticism of his lower home-run numbers in 2014? Was it pressing in trying to keep up with teammate Nelson Cruz’s hot start and the Mariners’ lofty expectations? Or was Cano trying to cheat the slow swing by committing early and guessing on pitches? Did the lack of energy lead to a broken approach? Or was the approach the main problem regardless of health?

There were no definitive answers and no easy fix. But slowly Cano’s patient approach at the plate became more consistent, and his energy returned.  He began spraying the ball all over the field, and the numbers improved. It wasn’t a coincidence.

Cano’s frustrating season took on another layer  July 28 when he suffered an abdominal injury, which then was labeled a strain. He missed four games before returning to the lineup. But the injury really was a sports hernia — a tear in the lower abdomen. It wasn’t season-ending, and Cano chose to play through the pain. The hernia caused the most problems when he had to make quick bursts while running. Sprinting — something he was never known for — and quick movements in the field were limited. But he was still productive at the plate.

He played out the season with the hernia. Cano appeared in 58 games after suffering the injury, hitting .328 with an .877 OPS, 10 doubles, 10 homers, 19 walks, 33 runs scored and 37 RBI.

Besides the injuries, slow start and the hot second half, Cano’s 2015 season was known for some boneheaded baserunning mistakes.

Among the miscues: There was the mistake of thinking the bases were loaded against the Dodgers. He was picked off at first base in a  loss to the Rays, and he failed to tag up from third base against the Angels. 

This isn’t a new development. Cano had similar issues during his time with Yankees. But when you are putting up video-game numbers and making All-Star teams, the mistakes are a little more acceptable. But with the Mariners struggling and Cano not producing in key situations, they were amplified. Fans became angry with each mistake.

The present

Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano crushes a three-run home run in the fourth inning, bringing Seattle into the lead, 6-3, during the second of a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays at Safeco Field in Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano crushes a three-run home run in the fourth inning, bringing Seattle into the lead, 6-3, during the second of a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays at Safeco Field in Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

It’s difficult to know Cano’s status this offseason. He spends it at his home in the Dominican Republic.

On Oct. 13, Cano underwent surgery to repair the hernia. The specialist had to repair tears to the left and right side of Cano’s abdominal area instead of just the right side. He was cleared to work out in December.

Unfair or not, Cano had to deal with controversy this offseason. First there was Van Slyke’s rambling rant on a sports-talk radio show about Cano’s season and his effort level. Then there was the report from the New York Post that disputed Van Slyke’s claims but also mentioned that Cano was unhappy in Seattle and wanted to return to New York. That little sentence snowballed into plenty of speculation. New Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto debunked the reports

Cano’s camp responded with this tweet of him working out:

It’s fair to believe that Cano will be highly motivated to rebound from his turbulent 2015. He missed the All-Star team, took a healthy dose of criticism and had one of his least-productive seasons.

It will be interesting to see how he reacts with the new regime and new manager Scott Servais. Former manager Lloyd McClendon was beyond patient with Cano and his mistakes, choosing to keep any issues or reprimands in the clubhouse and out of the public spotlight. McClendon never benched Cano for the baserunning miscues. Will Servais do the same?

Servais might not be as lenient. It’s hard to know how he will handle situations because he has no managerial experience. But he is aware of the Mariners’ problems with focus on the bases and in the field, specifically Cano’s baserunning problems.

Cano’s production is still vital to the Mariners success.  It was evident in the second half of last season season how potent the the offense can be when Cano is hitting. The middle of order was vastly more productive. Dipoto’s offseason plan was to add players with high on-base percentage to provide RBI situations for Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. It doesn’t work if one of those three isn’t hitting for an extended period.

The future

Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano slides safely into home plate to score in fourth inning, beating tag by Rockies catcher Dustin Garneau, Sunday, Sept.
Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano slides safely into home plate to score in fourth inning, beating tag by Rockies catcher Dustin Garneau, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, at Safeco Field in Seattle.

Cano is under contract through 2023 at $24 million per year. That’s $168 million total — not an insignificant sum. If that doesn’t make him untradeable, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which it could happen. It’s a contract that Dipoto can only cringe at knowing that those final years likely will be lost money.

There was a momentary debate on social media about Cano moving to first base in the future. This isn’t something new. Cano is unlikely to remain at second base for the length of his 10-year contract. He’s 33, and eventually the nagging nicks and dings that come during a season will become something more. The hernia procedure was the first surgery of his career.

But a move to first base in the next few seasons is highly unlikely. Cano’s overall value as a hitter and a player is heightened because he plays second base. It’s what makes him elite. It’s a loss in value moving him to first base when he’s still a productive player at second base.

It will be interesting to see how Cano reacts when his skills begin to diminish because of age. Some players ignore the signs, and their skills erode at a greater rate. But others, such as Raul Ibanez and Cruz, take a proactive approach, working even harder in the offseason as part of their preparation.

As Ibanez often quipped, “You can’t start thinking about playing at age 38 at age 37.”

Cano is a baseball junkie and loves to start hitting and working out early in the offseason. He spends plenty of time in the gym as well. But that routine eventually won’t be enough for optimal success. It doesn’t have to be immediate, but it certainly should be something that is considered soon.

Right now there isn’t an heir apparent at second base if/when Cano moves to first base. Ketel Marte profiles more as a second baseman at the big-league level. But he’s the Mariners’ shortstop for now. That could change if a more viable shortstop option emerges in the next few seasons or Marte struggles.

Tyler Smith is middle infielder with some hitting potential, and he fits the new “control the strike zone” mantra of Dipoto and Servais.