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You Don’t Pay for the Ends of the Rye Bread

My grandfather, Max Cohen, was an immigrant from Russia and didn’t have much money as a child. He used to tell me that on the way home from school, he would stop by the deli and the generous owner of the deli would give him the ends of loaves of rye bread for a snack, which he ate with a bit of New York Deli Mustard. The other part of the rye bread was used for sandwiches and, given that the loaves tapered at the ends, there was a fair bit at the end that was not usable for sandwiches.

I’m sure that Mets fans wished that their general Manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, had heard this story before trading for Robinson Cano.

As we all know, long term baseball contracts are generally pretty good for the team in the first few years. The first five years of Robinson Cano’s contract were pretty good for the Mariners. In that period, Cano was good for 20.8 wins above replacement. The Mariners paid him $110 million for those five years – an average of $5.3 million per win which is quite respectable.

In those five years, the Mariners had pretty much used up all of the sandwich ready part of the rye bread on that contract. They were now looking at the ends of the loaf for five more years in Cano’s age 36-40 seasons. And, unfortunately, they were going to have to pay $24 million per year for those ends of the loaf. It was not a pretty picture.

But, fortunately for the Mariners, Brodie Van Wagenen came along and had a more positive view of those tasty ends. He agreed to pay $100 million over 5 years for those ends of the loaf. My immediate reaction when I heard of the deal was that Van Wagenen bought a pig in a poke. Cano has always relied on his incredible bat speed to succeed. With a player like this, when that bat speed goes, things can break bad very quickly. This is why Brian Cashman wisely refused to go more than 7 years with Cano.

Fortunately, for the Mariners (and maybe even the Yankees initially, but certainly not for Mets fans) Robbie Cano has, so far in 2019, demonstrated exactly why a long-term deal for him was such a risk. His walk rate is down from 9.2% in 2018 to 5.7% in 2019. His normally low strikeout rate has increased from 13.5% in 2018 to 20.0% in 2019. His isolated power has decreased from .168 to .134. The net effect of this is that his slash line has deteriorated from .303/.374/.471 to .250/.297/.384 and his WAR so far this year is pretty much replacement level at 0.1. And this is just in the first year of the five that the Mets are on the hook for. Robinson Cano will likely get even worse as he ages.

I take three things from this.

I thank the powers that be that Brian Cashman is the General Manager of the Yankees and not Brodie Van Wagenen.

Owners should be very careful when considering hiring former agents as general managers. Looking good in a suit and negotiating contracts that favor your client are certainly useful skills. But general managers have to have judgement and team building skills as well. Agents often lack those skills.

The next time fans start to fervently type a jeremiad insisting that the Yankees sign a “star” free agent for 7-10 years, remember the tale of the ends of the rye bread, Brodie Van Wagenen, and Robinson Cano.

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