Robinson Cano is reportedly asking for a $300 million contract coming off his age 30 season. Cano is very unlikely to see that kind of money, but he is expected to sign the biggest contract for any free agent this offseason. While many players will sign for a high average annual value this winter, only the elite free agents will get deals longer than 3-4 years, and Cano should be able to get the Yankees to commit to at least 7 years.
When I started thinking about a great second baseman playing into his thirties, my mind quickly went to Roberto Alomar. He was a great signing for the Tribe, but a disaster once he left Cleveland. Alomar actually signed with the Indians after his age 30 season, and Cano just finished his age 30 season, making for a good comparison.
Here are Roberto Alomar and Robinson Cano’s stats through their Age 30 seasons, courtesy of Fangraphs:
Both players end up just shy of 4 WAR per 600 plate appearances, but they get there in different ways. Cano has a slight advantage in strikeout rate (11.9% to 10.2%) and significantly more power, but Alomar walked more (9.6% to 6.0%), stole a lot more bases, and played better defense.
While their overall lines are similar, Robinson Cano has concentrated his value in the years leading up to his free agency. Cano has averaged 5.5 WAR/600 PA in the last four years, while Alomar averaged just 3.7 WAR/600 PA in the four years leading up to his free agency. While Cano reached a new level with his power and walk rate, and also improved his defense, Alomar saw his stolen bases decrease and his defensive numbers weren’t as excellent as they were during his early twenties.
Alomar signed a four-year deal for $30 million, one of the larger deals of that off-season. The biggest contracts that year were Bernie Williams‘s 7 year, $87.5 contract with the Yankees, Mo Vaughn‘s 6 years/$80 million with Anaheim, and Albert Belle‘s 5 years/$65 million with Baltimore (the team that Alomar left). In 1999 Alomar’s $7 million salary was 25% lower than the average of the top 10 salaries in baseball.
Cleveland’s decision paid off immediately, as Alomar had the best season of his career in 1999, hitting .323/.422/.533 while playing above average defense and stealing 37 bases on 43 attempts (86% success rate). He was worth 7.3 WAR, the third best of any player in the American League. He declined a bit in 2000, walking 35 fewer times and hitting 5 fewer homers in 3 additional plate appearances, but his base running was even better, as he stole 39 bases on 43 attempts (91%, the 16th highest rate since 1970 for a player with at least 40 attempts). In 2001, Alomar was back to his 1999 form at the plate, hitting .336/.415/.541 thanks to his walk rate returning to normal and a career high 12 triples.
Coming off a 91-win season and an AL Central Division title in 2001, Cleveland General Mark Shapiro needed to cut payroll, so he traded Roberto Alomar to the Mets in exchange for Matt Lawton, Alex Escobar, and Billy Traber. Traber and Escobar didn’t pan out as prospects, while Lawton (30 years old during his first year in Cleveland) gave the Tribe a few years of above-average offense.
The trade was a disaster for the Mets, as Alomar fell apart nearly immediately, batting .266/.331/.376 due to a .290 BABIP and his lowest ISO since his age 22 season. Alomar was worth just 1.4 WAR for New York, the first time he ever had a season with less than 2 WAR . In 2003, after re-signing with New York for one year and $8 million, Alomar was hitting .262/336/.357 through 73 games when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. The change of scenery didn’t help, as he hit .253/.330/340 the rest of the season. 2004 was his last year in the majors, as Alomar battled a broken right hand and hit .263/.321/.392 while splitting time in Arizona and Chicago.
Alomar struggled in all areas of the game, walking less, showing very little power, and struggling to get hits on balls in play. His defense and base running, a big part of his value in his earlier years, also came apart when he turned 34.
The Indians got rid of Alomar at the perfect time, as he accrued 18.9 WAR in his three seasons for the Tribe. Using Lewie Pollis’ cost per win numbers from those years, we see Alomar provided the Tribe with a massive $37 million in surplus value, making this deal one of the best free agent deals the Tribe has ever signed.
Cano is about a 5-6 win player at this point in his career, so it’s easy to see him replicating Alomar’s numbers in the first few years of his contract. At the same time, any team looking to sign him must be wary of what those last few years may hold. It’s become common for teams to sign deals that give them surplus value in the first few years of the contract before being a drain in the tail end. If Cano sees his BABIP and power start to drop the same way Alomar’s did after he turned 34, he could have some rough years.
Whatever team signs him will know this and is willing to trade those down years for what Robinson Cano can provide when he’s still hitting the ball hard. Cano’s recent success will give him an opportunity to sign for a much lengthier contract than Alomar’s which will prevent whatever team that signs him from getting the kind of insane surplus value that Cleveland received from Alomar.