The team’s highest-paid player hit just .287, played through two sports-hernia injuries that required surgery and was accused of costing GM Jack Zduriencik and the coaching staff their jobs.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Not since he arrived two years ago as a new member of the Mariners have there been more questions than answers for Robinson Cano.
But the former All-Star second baseman, the Mariners’ highest-paid player, was all smiles when he stepped into the bright sun Thursday morning at the Peoria Sports Complex.
This spring training is a chance to start anew, a step forward from the failures and frustration of 2015 and the mild controversies of his offseason.
“I’m so excited to be back and see all the changes that we made and can’t wait to spend time with my new teammates,” Cano said before the Mariners’ first full-squad workout.
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But his easy smile disappeared when the discussion turned to 2015 and a few offseason accusations.
The season was a disappointment on multiple levels. He hit .287 with a .334 on-base percentage and .446 slugging percentage — his lowest totals in all three categories since 2008. Cano had 34 doubles, 21 homers and 79 runs batted in, the doubles and RBI also his lowest totals since 2008. He also struck out a career-high 107 times. For an average player, those numbers are solid. But the Mariners aren’t paying Cano $24 million a season for that kind of production.
Cano hit just .251 with a .639 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) and 14 extra-base hits (12 doubles and two homers) the first two months of the season. Beyond the numbers at the plate, he was committing silly errors in the field and making mental mistakes on the bases.
There were some reasons behind the struggles.
Later in the season, Cano disclosed that had been dealing with lingering stomach issues caused by a parasite he had contracted in 2014. The illness left him with a nasty case of acid reflux that affected his sleep and energy.
But the slow start went beyond stomach issues. Cano had become pull happy and was swinging at pitches out the strike zone. Hitting coach Edgar Martinez helped change that.
From July 1 until the end of the season, Cano hit .303 with an .843 OPS, 22 doubles, a triple, 19 home runs and 63 RBI. He also did that playing the final 58 games with two sports hernias that limited him in the field and running the bases.
Cano underwent surgery to repair both Oct. 13. After the recovery time, he was back to working out.
“I would say I’m 98 percent,” he said. “There is no pain. There are days the doctor said you’ll wake up and feel some tightness. That is part of the process. But even through that, I’m able to run, and I’ve been swinging with no pain or anything.”
During his recovery at his home in the Dominican Republic, Cano’s phone began to fill with voice mails and text messages informing him of comments that former coach Andy Van Slyke had made on a radio show. In a rambling interview, Van Slyke questioned Cano’s work ethic and said, “He had probably the worst single year of an everyday player that I’ve ever seen in 20 years at the big-league level. … He was just the most awful player I’ve ever seen.”
Van Slyke also said Cano “couldn’t get a hit when it mattered. He played the worst defense I’ve ever seen at second base. I mean I’m talking about the worst defensive second baseman ever — I’ve ever seen in 20 years in the big leagues.”
The criticism wrapped up with Van Slyke accusing Cano of being responsible for the firings of general manager Jack Zduriencik, manager Lloyd McClendon and the coaching staff.
The comments reached Cano in the Dominican Republic.
“Honestly, it didn’t hurt me because coming from a guy like him it doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “Because I know how I played. You guys know. If you heard the comments, first he threw me under the bus and then he was like what’s so great about myself. You didn’t know what he was trying to say. Andy? It doesn’t even matter to me.”
And yet there was a hurt look on Cano’s face and his voice was tinged with a sense of betrayal from someone he trusted.
“A lot of people called me and I said, ‘I’m not going to waste my time and say anything back,’ ” he said. “I got a call from the Mariners apologizing because he said all that stuff. He was a guy that always talked to me. And then he says that. I don’t know how come he said everybody got fired because of me.”
Later, a New York Post story made it worse. Though the bulk of the story discredited Van Slyke’s claims, it also reported, citing a source close to Cano, that the second baseman was unhappy in Seattle and wanted to go back to New York, where he played for the Yankees before signing with the Mariners. That little nugget also led to more speculation.
“I never said that,” Cano said. “I don’t know where they find it. They always say the source or friend. I never talked to a friend or nobody. I will tell you guys, I’m happy to be here and happy to get my chance here to be able to play to the end of my career and have fun with the guys and a city that has treated me so nice.”
After that offseason, spring couldn’t arrive soon enough for Cano.
“I want to start fresh from the first day of spring training and get ready for the season,” he said.
For the Mariners to succeed in 2016, they’ll need Cano to return to the player they expected when he signed a 10-year, $240 million contract.
Last year, there were postseason expectations from everyone around baseball for the Mariners. That talk has quieted considerably this season. But there is still hope for the first postseason berth since 2001.
“I spoke to (pitcher) Felix (Hernandez) my first year,” Cano said. “I told him, ‘I want you to be in the playoffs. I want you to have that feeling.’
“I know it’s good to pitch when you have that whole crowd. It’s good in the season, but its different in the playoffs when every out, every pitch, everything means something. Hopefully we can make it this year so he can know that experience.”