After a trade that went from bad to worse following his second-career PED suspension, the Robinson Cano era in Flushing has come to an end.
The Mets designated Cano for assignment before Monday’s noon deadline to bring their roster down to 26 men. The Mets also optioned right-hander Yoan Lopez to Triple-A Syracuse. Cano is still owed around $40 million through the 2023 season from the Mets, who took on his contract from the Seattle Mariners in 2019.
But for a team with big aspirations and Steve Cohen, a billionaire owner who can foot the bill, all that money being eaten became a no-brainer following Cano’s disappointing start to the season.
Over the weekend, Mets GM Billy Eppler presented Cohen with a variety of ways the club could approach its Monday roster crunch. Eppler walked Cohen through the potential transactions, recommendations from the baseball operations group, as well as the finances involved with each decision. Cohen’s response?
“Make the baseball decision,” the Mets owner told Eppler.
Buck Showalter and Eppler called Cano into the manager’s office on Sunday night, after the Mets beat the Phillies at Citi Field. Eppler, who was previously the Yankees assistant director of baseball operations, has known Cano since 2004, when the second baseman was 21 years old, during his minor-league days playing for the Bronx Bombers. Due to their professional history, the GM said telling Cano he was DFA’ed was one of the most difficult conversations he’s ever had with a player.
Showalter, who believes Cano was guarded about how he really felt, said he wished all players would approach a tough situation the way that Cano did in the skipper’s office. Eppler said: “It was just Robbie,” and that Cano reacted to the news like a pro.
“He’s a tremendous baseball player,” Eppler said. “He’s got a big heart. He’s a good person. I’m sure he’s somebody that five years, 10 years from now I’m going to run into him on the island or run into him in Florida or New York or somewhere. We’ll continue to share in some good memories together. But last night wasn’t one of them.”
Eppler and Showalter both said they fully expect Cano to land on his feet and sign with another club. If Cano is not claimed by another team in the next seven days, he can be put on waivers or traded. If he is picked up by another club, that team will pay Cano the minimum MLB salary of $700,000, while the Mets will cover the remainder of his contract. Eppler said, in the event Cano does not find a job, the GM will “welcome him back here in a different capacity too, if he wants that.”
At age 39, Cano hit .195/.233/.268 with one home run and three RBI, two walks and 11 strikeouts across 12 games. That sort of production didn’t fit with the rest of the loaded Mets roster, which entered Monday with the best record in the National League. Repeatedly putting Cano in the lineup became a disadvantage for a Mets offense that, despite Cano, is first in MLB in hits (203) and fourth in MLB in runs (108), among other early-season offensive accolades.
Even so, in the days leading up to Cano’s release, it was no sure thing that the Mets would make the sensible and obvious call by releasing the veteran. Showalter on Sunday said he was empathetic to the challenges involved for an aging part-time player, and the club viewed Cano as a valuable clubhouse leader with his 17 years of big-league experience.
“I was sad,” Francisco Lindor said of Cano’s DFA. “I didn’t want to see him go. But I respect the decision. He was a great guy, great teammate. I wish I spent more time with him, continued to learn about the game and different things that he’s been through in life.”
But then Dominic Smith’s breakout night at the plate happened. Smith is among the few position players who still have minor-league options remaining, along with Luis Guillorme and J.D. Davis. It’s clear that Showalter values Guillorme’s infield versatility, as he has played in 13 of the team’s 23 games so far this season. Davis is the only right-handed threat off the bench. So Monday’s roster cut largely came down to Smith or Cano.
“I didn’t personally think it would happen,” Smith said of Cano being DFA’ed. “That’s a lot of money to eat.”
Smith made a statement on Sunday night against the Phillies, helping lead the Mets to a 10-6 victory thanks to his 4-for-4 night at the plate with three RBI and a run scored. Cano, meanwhile, may have played his last game as a Met on Friday against the Phillies, going 1-for-3 with two strikeouts to complete his turbulent passage through Queens.
After nine seasons with the Yankees and five years with the Mariners, Cano was traded to the Mets alongside closer Edwin Diaz before the 2019 season as part of Brodie Van Wagenen’s first move as the team’s general manager. At the time the trade made little sense, as the Mets sent outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic, their 2018 first-round pick, to the Mariners and absorbed Cano’s 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with Seattle in December 2013, when Van Wagenen was Cano’s agent.
The trade became worse when MLB suspended Cano for all of the 2021 season following his second career positive PED test. After one of his worst career seasons in 2019, Cano bounced back in 2020 to hit .316/.352/.544 with 10 home runs. But that production became tainted when Cano was caught using steroids in the winter of 2020. Having once been on a Hall of Fame trajectory with 2,632 career hits, Cano’s future with the Mets came with a deadline.
Having served his season-long suspension without pay, Cano returned to the Mets this spring training with a private apology for his teammates and a public statement for his fans. The Mets gave Cano a chance to succeed, but less than a month into the 2022 season, his lack of production became more unprofitable than the other option: releasing him from the team and continuing to pay the remainder of his contract.
Thus begins a new era in Mets baseball, one in which the owner is willing to eat the money of an unpopular and ineffective player and, by doing so, signals to his team and fan base that the organization is dead-serious about winning.
“He trusts the decisions being made,” Showalter said of Cohen. “He can do whatever he wants, but he’s just been so supportive of things. You’d like to give him some return for that confidence too. Certainly creates a lot of morale from the standpoint of everybody wanting to do their job. But he’s been a rock for us.”