"I'm not here to set markets. I'm here to win more games than the other second basemen."
Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said that back in July, on the day that he signed an eight-year, $110 million contract extension with the Red Sox. The deal will keep him at Fenway Park until he's 38 years old. It's the sort of sentiment that you might expect from the outspoken unofficial captain of the Red Sox, especially in response to those who pointed out that he likely left money on the table in order to remain in Boston.
Pedroia almost certainly would have gotten more if he waited for his turn at free agency. However, when Pedroia did a cost-benefit analysis, he decided it was worth it to shave a few dollars off his take in order to remain with the Red Sox. Some applauded him for his fierce loyalty to the organization that gave him his start. Others, myself included, just assumed he liked Boston well enough, didn't want to uproot his family, and wanted to avoid the uncertainty of free agency.
Dustin Pedroia (Jim Rogash)
The path can't be that easy for everyone, especially if they aren't content to accept less money to remain with the team that is currently signing their paychecks -- you know, like Robinson Cano. After nine seasons with the Yankees, Cano has taken an approach opposite Pedroia's, apparently hoping to be not only the player that sets the market, but also a record if reports of his seeking a 10-year, $310 million contract are accurate.
This early in the offseason, with months to work out a deal, there's still time to make demands that some perceive as unrealistic.
Scoff at the reported price tag all you want, but Cano is the best player on the market and can start the negotiating at whatever figure he deems reasonable, because barring some sort of nuclear meltdown in negotiations, he's going to be playing baseball somewhere next season, and even if his position backfires completely he's going to be making a great deal of money. What he does risk, however, is damaging his reputation and his safety net with the Yankees in the process.
While the desire to get the best deal for oneself would seem to be an example of a healthy self-regard for one's value, Cano's actions, like those of many free agents before him, remain divisive. Yet, there's no question that were we in their position most of us would act far more like a Cano than a Pedroia. I know that if I had multiple places bidding for my work I'd get a bit of a chip on my shoulder and demand favorable contract terms, an enormous salary, and maybe a few things like telecommuting, jeans on Friday, and bring-your-dog-to-work days to sweeten the deal -- most of you would too --and yet it's a quality that so many seem to detest in ballplayers.
Perhaps that revulsion is as simple as an indiscriminate jealousy of anyone making gobs of money, but I think at the root these free agent negotiations get in the way of our ideas regarding team loyalty. We want to believe a player actually feels the attachment to a team that we perceive they do. It's not about loving Mike Napoli, it's about how we thought Napoli loved being part of the Red Sox. That's the betrayal part. After 162 games, they pack it in and say, "Well that's nice, but where can I go do the same thing for more money?" Yet, except for a small number of instances, the "home-team discount" isn't a reality. It's something we've romanticized over time.
Still, it's hard to think about a player like Napoli, who just won the World Series with the Red Sox and majestically roamed the streets in a drunken stupor for what seemed like weeks shouting, "BOSTON STRONG" until he was hoarse turning down an offer from them in the quest for more money and years, but we must face the fact that some decisions are business, not baseball. As such, the Pedroias are the exception, not the rule; the relationship between players and organizations has been a mercenary one ever since players started getting paid and began jumping from team to team on the quest for fame and fortune almost 150 years ago.
Mike Napoli (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)
Last Friday, John Harper of the New York Daily News published a piece in which someone "close to Cano" affirmed the second baseman is looking for a big payday, and he'll consider leaving the Yankees if the price is right. The source also said that Cano is willing to let these negotiations ride for as long as necessary -- until Christmas, or even into the new year if it means getting the best deal.
None of this is revelatory. Saying that a free agent, especially the pick of the litter, is seeking the big bucks while waiting for the best deal is akin to informing the reader that water is wet, that the sky is blue, and that ketchup should never be put on a hot dog. All free agents, not just the elite ones, are spending their winter doing exactly the same thing Cano is. It happens time and again, and the tendency is reinforced when a player like Carlos Ruiz is handed a three-year, $26 million contract to play at a physically demanding position despite his advanced age. When that happens, the best of the class sits a little taller and says, "If he's worth that much, I must be worth five times as much."
And honestly, that's how they should look at it, and not just because teams continually show that they have a surplus of cash that they are willing to throw at players to solve problems. Wanting a larger slice of the pie isn't selfish or even unreasonable, it's human nature, especially when history shows that the bakery is often generous. While some players can't hope for the sort of money Cano might get, they can at least be steered by things like geography, playing time, and years on a contract. The lost beauty of free agency is that many players are given the opportunity to accept deals that serve their own self-interest, and have a partial chance to choose their own destiny, sometimes for the first time in their career. The correct response when someone makes Cano or his counterparts out to look like money-crazed villains isn't to deplore the selfishness of rich men getting richer, but to celebrate their having achieved the kind of freedom to which we all aspire.
For better or worse, players and their agents understand the market just as well if not better than organizations. In Cano's case, it's a secret to no one that he's the best free-agent position player available, and that puts the majority of the negotiating power at his end for now. It's easy to be stubborn when you have fallback options, even if it's not clear what they are just now; many teams are in need of a second baseman, but how many of them are prepared to spend, or spend Cano-approved levels of dollars on one player, remains unknown. Past winters have shown that even if there are not obvious bidders right now (not even the Yankees, whose team president said on Tuesday that "Until [Cano] gets a little more realistic, we have nothing to talk about''), parties presently unsuspected might show interest the longer the clock runs.
Robinson Cano (Nick Laham)
Many major league executives still believe that Cano is just looking for negotiating power and will ultimately be back with the Yankees long term, which may be true. While it's not easy to accept, every player owes it to himself to get the best deal out there for their needs; if Cano and his agent believe the best way to do that is to be patient and let the market unfold, then we shouldn't begrudge his handling it that way. Playing hard to get is the reasonable strategy, the one that so many of us would implore given the opportunity. Maybe the journey leads him back to the Bronx when it's all over, but at least he considered all of his options.
Whatever the outcome, the important thing to remember is that the quest for a big payday is not incongruent with a player's desire to win. It doesn't make him less gritty, less loyal, less committed, or less motivated than those who decide to stay. In some ways, it makes them more reasonable, even admirable, for risking that the market sharply turns and that they end up with less security than they might have had otherwise.
In other words, no matter where Cano or his free-agent brethren land, when you see them celebrating at the bottom of a postseason dog-pile that emotion is real. There's nothing disingenuous about the dream of getting something bigger or trying something new. That's a benefit of the doubt that Cano hasn't received. All year long, rumor has had it that Cano's free agency is just posturing and theater, that he has no intention of leaving the Yankees. There is a sad irony to the fact that even if Cano never intended to go, the very act of seeming as if he were prepared to depart -- a posture necessary if he's going to extract anything like his full worth out of the negotiations -- might alter the way fans regard him. Another way to think of it: If Cano re-signs with the Yankees, next year he might hit (say) .310/.360/.500. If he signs with another team, he might also hit something like .310/.360/.500, park adjustments and normal variation aside. The only thing about him that will have changed is our perception of his motivations. How is that fair?