The Mariners get Robinson Cano back from an 80-game suspension on Tuesday. But how will they utilize him? And is his bat enough to ignite the middle of Seattle's lineup?
HOUSTON — The uniform was different, but that short, violent and rhythmic swing, leading to sound of a baseball hitting squarely on the barrel of one of his black, lacquered bats was unmistakable.
In the third game of his “rehab” assignment before a return from an 80-game suspension, Robinson Cano smacked a majestic two-run homer on Thursday night at Everett Memorial Stadium. It was the first of three hits for Cano, who started at first base for the second time on his rehab stint.
On Friday night, he repeated that swing, smashing a grand slam to dead center as part of a two-hit night.
After playing third base on Saturday and making several plays at a position he hadn’t played since early in his pro career, Cano deemed himself game ready, ending his rehab stint a game early. He had been planning to play on Sunday for Everett. He finished with seven hits in five games, playing first base twice with games at designated hitter, second base and third base.
“He is anxious to play,” M’s manager Scott Servais.
On Monday, he’ll fly to the Bay Area to meet the Mariners, who will be finishing up a three-city road trip against the Oakland A’s — the team they are battling for the American League wild card.
On Tuesday, he’ll be reinstated from his suspension for violating the MLB-MLBPA Joint Drug Testing agreement.
- Will he be in the lineup that night?
- What position will he be playing?
- Where will he be hitting?
There are so many questions that don’t have answers yet.
Servais has done his best to remain vague about Cano.
“We’ll be creative,” has become a favorite answer when queried about how they’ll reinsert Cano into their lives.
Like most managers, he tends to focus on the now, specifically that day’s game or the current series.
General manager Jerry Dipoto, who’s never shy about giving a lengthy answer to a yes-or-no question, has also been cautious in what he says about the situation.
Perhaps the Mariners remain so careful due to the uncertainty of the situation. Yes, they’ve been planning for weeks about how they’ll use Cano for the final 40 games. They’ve asked him to work out at first base and third base beside his usual second-base spot, which is occupied by Dee Gordon. But variables can always change.
How much of a difference will Cano make to the Mariners? Can he help reinvigorate an offense that has been lagging since July 1?
Let’s remember Cano will have missed 80 games. While he got five games of at-bats on his rehab stints, it’s difficult to expect him to be a complete force upon return.
Still, Cano is such a gifted hitter, with more than 8,000 career plate appearances at the big-league level, that he won’t be overwhelmed. Servais joked that Cano could show up on the first day of spring training and get three hits in a game. The Mariners could use it.
In the first 39 games of the season with Cano in the lineup, the Mariners as a team were averaging 4.69 runs per game with a team slash line (average/on-base/slugging) of .261/.329/.434.
In the 77 games since, they averaged 3.9 runs per game with a .254/.308/.403 slash line. His absence has been particularly glaring in the last 30-plus games, when Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger had cooled off from their torrid pace and Kyle Seager continued to struggle. Before the outburst of offense following the recent lineup change before the Astros series, the Mariners were averaging 3.3 runs per game with a slash line of .239/.292./.375 since July 1.
Cano had a slash line of .287/.385/.441 with 10 doubles, four homers and 23 RBIs before breaking his hand and accepting the 80-game suspension. The numbers aren’t necessarily overwhelming. But the Mariners were encouraged by Cano’s on-base percentage and 21 walks in 39 games. He was showing an increased level of patience at the plate. That is needed for a team that features several players with a swing-early, swing-often, swing-at-everything approach. Adding another player who is willing to work a count like Haniger and Denard Span brings lineup diversity.
“That can get contagious when guys see the value of it,” Servais said. “It does slow guys down in their at-bats, and they start playing the game differently.”
It’s been said before and will be repeated in the coming days, “Cano’s return will lengthen the Mariners’ lineup.” Basically, that’s baseball-speak for putting more good hitters in a row.
If the Mariners go with their new-look top of the lineup featuring Haniger as the leadoff hitter and Gordon batting ninth, they could put out a lineup that looks like this (using FanGraphs’ weight runs created plus [wRC+], a stat which attempts to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs with adjustments for park and league [league average is 100]):
- Mitch Haniger (131 wRC+)
- Jean Segura (113 wRC+)
- Robinson Cano (131 wRC+)
- Nelson Cruz (148 wRC+)
- Kyle Seager (89 wRC+)
- Denard Span (130 wRC+)
It will be interesting to see how Seattle gets Cano at-bats. He doesn’t have to play every game, but it would be counterproductive to sit more than once or twice. Servais did mention that he would like to get Gordon and Seager a day off every so often. Gordon is still dealing with a toe fracture that won’t completely heal during the season and other dings and dents. He’s also been slumping at the plate recently. Perhaps Cano gets a game more at second base than expected. Seager missed three games for the birth of his daughter, but has otherwise been an everyday player while still not producing at an expected level.
“It frees some things up with Robbie coming back in the picture,” Servais said.
It does seem like streaky first baseman Ryon Healy, who had a great series vs. the Astros, could see his playing time diminish the most.
Servais isn’t concerned about Cano’s return somehow disrupting the clubhouse. He’s been around the team for a large part of his suspension, going to Safeco Field daily for rehab on his surgically repaired hand and working out. He would routinely talk to players before they started their scheduled workouts.
“I think everybody is looking forward to it,” Servais said. “They know he’s part of the team here going forward. Players understand talent. I’ve tried to very open and talking to our guys about things coming down the pike here.”