Brian Roberts will be the starting second baseman for the 2014 New York Yankees, Joe Girardi told reporters Monday. “That is the plan, for him to be our second baseman,” the manager said, in what is perhaps the most improbable quote of the offseason.
Rewind back to September of 2012. Roberts had been on the disabled list for the past 103 days and 84 games after undergoing surgery on the labrum in his right hip. He had missed the season’s first 60 games due to recovery from concussion-like symptoms stemming from an injury sustained just 39 games into the 2011 season. For the 17 games he managed to play in 2012, Roberts went 12-for-66 (.182) without an extra-base hit.
A couple hundred miles northeast, Robinson Cano was finishing a second consecutive All-Star season with the Yankees. Cano hit .385/.400/.538 over the club’s last 10 games to fuel a push for the American League East title. Cano hit 33 home runs with a .313/.379/.550 line in 161 games for the Yankees and established himself as the club’s top position player.
And generally, when you establish yourself as the best Yankees position player — or even a good Yankees position player — in your 20s, you don’t spend your 30s in another uniform. Cano spent nine years in the Bronx through his age 30, something only four other Yankees matched or exceeded: Derek Jeter, Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams and Willie Randolph. The first three became the stuff of Yankee legend and spent the whole of their careers in pinstripes. Randolph, who reached five All-Star games as a Yankee but didn’t compete for MVP votes like the other three did, was let go at age 33. He spent the next four seasons with four different clubs and never played more than 125 games again (although he was excellent on the 1991 Brewers, as he hit .324/.427/.374 in 431 plate appearances).
Cano signed a four-year, $30 million contract extension in 2008 with a pair of eight-figure option years. Once Cano broke out in 2010 (second All-Star appearance and first since 2006; 141 OPS+, 8.2 bWAR) it seemed something of an inevitability that the Yankees would ride out the option years en route to a megadeal following the 2013 season. But even as Cano kept hitting, rumblings started to pop up suggesting he might not follow in the footsteps of Jeter and Mattingly and Williams.
There was the Yankees brief pledge to stay under the $189 million luxury tax line. Then there was Cano’s dreadful 2012 playoff campaign, in which he went just 3-for-40 (.075) and posted a record worst 0-for-26 stretch across the ALDS and ALCS. The skid prompted the typical reactionary and not-so-subtly racist sports radio-styletakes from the media — “Robinson cruise control strikes again; Cano brings March intensity to October” and “Robinson Cano enjoys view of Justin Verlander while lounging in computer chair” and “Nonchalant Cano Will Never Lead Yankees“.
I never quite bought the idea that the Yankees were just going to let Cano go. I didn’t trust the $189 million line. I didn’t think the Yankees would buy the hot take lines. I didn’t think the Yankees would worry about one horrible playoff season after seeing him hit eight home runs and slug .491 in 42 playoff games before 2010, nor did I think a team that stood behind Alex Rodriguez until he finally found his breakout playoff performance would forget those lessons. But most of all, I just didn’t think the Yankees were prepared for the alternative, whether it was Brian Roberts or Kelly Johnson or Mark Ellis or any of the other detritus on the free agent market.
Even though the Yankees blew through the $189 million line after the Masahiro Tanaka signing, the decision to let Cano walk isn’t hard to justify. The Yankees had more holes than just second base, and it’s easy to imagine the combination of Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran doing more to push the Yankees towards a championship than retaining Cano would have done.
But that’s not the point, and it’s not why seeing the husk of Brian Roberts slated to start at second base for the New York Yankees is such a shock. It’s a shock because Robinson Cano was the type of player the Yankees of old would never let go.
The league changes, and even though the Yankees have spent much of their hallowed history as a rock of tradition, they change too. After the 2013 season, the second time in five years the club missed the playoffs after 13 consecutive postseason appearances, there will be no better signifier of that change than the scene at Yankee Stadium on April 29th against Seattle, when Cano will start in the Bronx wearing Northwest Green, and if all goes according to plan, Brian Roberts, of all people, will be the second baseman in pinstripes.