By Bill Shaikin
10:29 PM PST, December 6, 2013
The team had won 71 games, finishing a distant fourth in the American League West. The fans had gotten impatient. The best player in free agency had decided this would be all about the money, and that fourth-place team got him with a blowout bid.
In 2000, that team was the Texas Rangers. They signed Alex Rodriguez for $252 million, won 73 games the following year, and dumped him on the New York Yankees two years later.
On Friday, that team was the Seattle Mariners. They agreed to sign Robinson Cano for $240 million.
What we saw on Friday was unusual, almost heretical: a star in the prime of his career, leaving the Yankees for more money elsewhere.
The Yankees were understandably reluctant to subject themselves to another forty-something albatross. This was Cano's last, best chance to cash in — he's 31 — and when “more money elsewhere” reportedly means some $65 million more, you understand. That would not be a hometown discount. That would be a breach of fiduciary duty.
The ripple effect spread through baseball, and to Los Angeles.
The Dodgers and Yankees are expected to be the high bidders for Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, if he becomes a free agent. As of Friday, Major League Baseball and its Japanese counterpart had yet to strike a formal agreement, and Tanaka's Japanese team had yet to agree to let him go. However, if Tanaka becomes available, the Yankees have that much more money to throw at him.
The Angels could laugh and cry, all at once. For a pitching-poor team, a division that now includes Cano and Prince Fielder makes the holidays anything but merry.
After the two Rodriguez contracts — the one with the Rangers, and a subsequent $275-million deal with the Yankees — the Angels' 10-year, $240-million deal with Albert Pujols ranked as the most lucrative in baseball history.
The Mariners agreed to identical terms with Cano. Pujols was one year older when he signed with the Angels. He is two years into the deal, with no playoff appearances. After winning the last two winters in spending — once with Pujols, the other with Josh Hamilton — the Angels are more than happy to yield that dubious distinction to Seattle.
But for this day, even if this day came in December, Seattle was a baseball town again. The Mariners' attendance has dropped from 3.51 million in 2001 — the last time they made the playoffs, and the year after Rodriguez left them for Texas — to 1.77 million last season. The only teams with longer postseason droughts: the Kansas City Royals (1985) and Toronto Blue Jays (1993).
Gabe Kapler remembers that kind of day. He was the center fielder for the Rangers when they stunned the baseball world by signing Rodriguez.
“The city was abuzz with excitement,” Kapler said Friday. “The clear-cut best player in baseball was going to the Rangers.”
Rodriguez was 25. He had three dominant years in Texas, albeit ones in which he since has admitted he used performance-enhancing substances. He led the league in home runs every year, as a shortstop, and was AL MVP in 2003.
The Rangers finished in last place every year. Attendance fell from 2.8 million to 2.1 million. The Rangers got the Yankees to take him off their hands.
“It was impossible for one player to come in and completely reverse the fortunes of a franchise,” Kapler said.
In 2001, the Rangers had the worst earned-run average in the league. Of the six pitchers to start at least nine games, one had an ERA under 5.00.
The Mariners start with All-Stars Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and they have the prospects to get David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays. One major league executive said Friday he expects the Mariners' next move will be a strong push for Price.
But the Mariners batted a league-low .237 last season. Cano hit 27 home runs, but Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales combined for 52, and those Mariners anchors now are free agents.
With two top starters in place and prospects to trade, the Mariners are in better position to take advantage of Cano than the Rangers were with Rodriguez. Kapler said he would have shunned a 10-year contract for Cano and split that money between outfielder Shin Soo-Choo and first baseman Mike Napoli, who agreed to re-sign with Boston on Friday.
“I think Choo is the best player in the market,” Kapler said.
The Mariners open the season in Anaheim, presumably with Cano batting third. Whatever other hitters arrive between now and then — Choo? Nelson Cruz? Morales? Matt Kemp? — will determine whether the best day of the Mariners' 2014 season turns out to be Dec. 6, 2013.
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