Robinson Cano had a brilliant 2016 season -- his best as a Mariner. Will there be some regression in 2017?
Previewing the Mariners’ second base position each year can be sort of redundant. Robinson Cano will be the team’s second baseman for as long as he’s capable of handling it. With seven years remaining on his $240 million contract, Cano is locked into the position for the foreseeable future. Two seasons ago, that premise was a major concern for fans with Cano appearing to be aging quickly and his skills eroding. But a resurgent 2016 season — one of the best in his career — provided some relief for the Mariners.
Can he replicate that production in 2017?
The 2016 season was the finest for Cano in a Mariners’ uniform and possibly one of the best of his career.
Cano posted a 6.0 Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs in 2017 after hitting .298 with an .882 on-base plus slugging percentage, 33 doubles, two triples, 39 homers and 103 RBI while playing 161 games. It was tied for eighth best WAR in the American League and second to only Jose Altuve among AL second baseman.
It was Cano’s highest since registering a 7.6 WAR in 2012 where he hit .313 with a .929 on-base plus slugging percentage, 48 doubles, 33 homers and 94 RBI.
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Among American League leaders, Cano ranked second in total bases (349), second in at-bats (655), third in multi-hit games (59), fourth in hits (195), tied for fourth in games played (161), seventh in home runs (39), tied for eighth in extra base hits (74), tenth in slugging (.533), 11th in RBI (103), 11th in OPS (.882) and 13th in average (.298).
He was one of five players in the Majors Leagues to score at least 100 runs and drive in 100 runs, joining Nolan Arenado, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Kris Bryant. The last Mariner to do that was Raul Ibanez in 2006.
Of Cano’s 39 homers, 16 were go-ahead home runs, which tied for most in the MLB with five other players.
What made the year more impressive was that Cano was coming off of a disappointing 2015 season where he dealt with digestive issues and played through a double sports hernia while not feeling comfortable at the plate and looking slow in the field.
He also took a healthy amount of criticism going into the 2016, including his own coach Andy Van Slyke skewering him on a St. Louis radio show.
In the end, the health issues and Van Slyke’s criticism might have been beneficial for Cano and the Mariners. It forced Cano to change his thinking about preparation in the offseason. There was renewed focus on strength training and workouts beyond taking ground balls and hitting in the cage. And there was plenty motivation.
After undergoing surgery to repair the hernias, Cano had to start over in strengthening his core. He hooked up with a new trainer and cut back on his offseason travel to rehab.
“I started working the day after my surgery,” he said. “You have to do exercise every single day to get stronger and have it in your mind how you’re going to do the next year or how you’re going to feel.”
Cano’s improved health was noticeable even in spring training. He was moving better laterally and looked stronger and leaner. His commitment to a new plan was evident.
While he didn’t want make a big a deal of it, Cano was putting in extra strength training work each day in the spring. After participating in the Mariners morning work at the facility and playing in Cactus League game, Cano would venture to the local L.A. Fitness each night with his personal trainer and sometimes a second trainer to put in another workout.
“It’s something I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t just want to sit around all night.”
Once the season began, Cano continued to do the extra strength work after games at the urging of Nelson Cruz. The two friends began a postgame lifting regimen during the season that helped maintain what was built in the offseason.
The Mariners and Cano believe that helped keep him healthy throoughout the season.
But beyond the physical work, Cano also reworked the aspects of his approach. The hernia issues in 2015 turned him into a legless hitter. He struggled to generate power from his rear end in core because of the pain and was unable get through on inside fastballs and drive them. It had him cheating on fastballs and abandoning his spray it all over the park approach.
“Compared to where I was last year from when I was struggling, it was 100 percent turnaround,” he said. “You feel like you are new again. You can use your legs and have your power. You feel way different.”
He also re-thought his approach at the plate, particularly on first pitches. In past years, Cano would often spit on the first pitch, regardless of location, in an effort to work into a better count. He finally realized that pitchers had adjusted to that thinking and were giving him far too good of pitches to start an at-bat, knowing he would rarely swing.
That changed in 2016. With the help of hitting coach Edgar Martinez’s daily hitter meetings and use of video, Cano studied what pitchers would do on first pitches to him in the past. He went up hunting certain pitches and locations on the first pitch with the intent to punish them. It led to results.
He had 47 hits on the first pitch, which was second most in MLB. He hit .416 (47-for-113) with a 1.228 OPS, 10 doubles, 11 homers and 31 RBI on first pitches His 11 first-pitch homers were tied for first in baseball with four other players.
“The thing for Robbie, he came in with a good frame of mind and in good shape last year in Spring Training,” manager Scott Servais. “And he stayed with his workouts, especially during the first half of the season. Talking to guys that have been around him in the past, he’s working out more in season to maintain it throughout the year. He had an awesome year, not just at the plate and power but I thought what he did defensively was really, really good. With all the shifting we did and how many times we put him in the outfield and he was all in on it, he didn’t balk at it, he had no issues with it. And we saw the number of plays he made with his backhand and throwing across his body. It was one of the most fun things for me to watch all season.”
Cano’s contributions were more than just on the field.
With Servais as a first-year manager intent on changing the culture in the clubhouse and around the team, he urged Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez to be leaders of the clubhouse.
It’s something that was asked of Cano when he signed with the Mariners. But he took it to a new level in 2016 with Servais empowering him in the role. Cano embraced the idea of being a leader and Servais’ approach in spring and in the season. It went beyond just words or hitting tips. He worked hard to mentor younger Latin players specifically in the expectations of a professional athlete.
Cano gave the Mariners the type of complete season the envisioned when they signed him to the massive contract.
Will there be some regression with Cano in 2017? It’s a fair question with an obvious answer of — most likely.
It would be foolish to think that Cano can replicate or better his 2016 numbers, specifically the power numbers.
The 39 homers were a career high. Cano had only gone over the 30-homer plateau once previously in his career. ZIPS projection system has Cano hitting .287 with an .807 OPS with 24 homers and 90 RBI.
Because he’s participating in the World Baseball Classic, Cano started his offseason regimen about two weeks after the season ended. With the big 2016 season, he wanted to follow a similar offseason workout plan while adding more aspects to it. He’s grown to enjoy the workouts, but he really enjoys the results they yield.
When the Mariners traded for shortstop Jean Segura on the day before Thanksgiving, Cano’s preparation evolved. The two had previously worked out in the past in the Dominican Republic. Now it was a daily occurrence. The Mariners certainly aren’t unhappy about their double play combination already getting in daily workouts together before spring training begins.
The years and money owed on Cano’s contract look like this:
2017: $24 million
2018: $24 million
2019: $24 million
2020: $24 million
2021: $24 million
2022: $24 million
2023: $24 million
That’s a total of $168 million.
Cano isn’t going anywhere for a long time. Even if the Mariners had an impetus trade him, the money left on that deal and Cano’s age would make it almost impossible. His health issues and the somewhat down year in 2015 offered a glimpse of what Cano could be like in the twilight years of that contract.
However, the resurgent 2016 showed that the changes in his preparation in the offseason and maintenance during the season will help him stave off or slow the inevitable regression to age.There was premature talk of Cano being shifted to first base in the near future. But last season showed that when healthy he’s still an elite defensive second baseman.
In terms of immediate depth if Cano were to get hurt, the Mariners would likely use Mike Freeman at second base.