New York Yankees' Robinson Cano (24) singles in the sixth...

New York Yankees' Robinson Cano (24) singles in the sixth inning. (June 1, 2010) Credit: John Dunn

With Robinson Cano quickly emerging this season as one of the game's best offensive players, let's trace his career path back to a time when most Yankees fans had no idea who he was.

To complete the blockbuster trade for Alex Rodriguez six years ago, the Yankees gave the Texas Rangers a list of five prospects to choose from, and Cano's name was on it.

Cano laughed Tuesday when asked if he ever wondered how different his life could have been if the Rangers had chosen him instead of Joaquin Arias.

"I was just talking about that with my dad," Cano said. Then Cano paused and shook his head, apparently in disbelief of what could have been. Then, looking in the direction of Rodriguez's locker, he said, "Good things happen for a reason."

Considering just how good Cano has been this season, it's easy to forget that only a few months ago no one knew whether he would be a good fit to hit fifth in the Yankees' lineup, right behind Rodriguez. Would a guy who struggled with runners in scoring position last season fit as a run producer?

He's been so good that it seems laughable that it was even a question. But here's the best part: Cano credits Rodriguez, the man he almost was traded for, with helping him succeed in the clutch.

You can debate whether such a thing as clutch exists in baseball, but most players are believers. So it's notable that Cano said he and Rodriguez spoke in spring training about how he shouldn't change his approach in those situations, "How I've just got to go up there and put forth the same swing."

Another piece of advice Rodriguez passed along, Cano said, was helping him understand that he has the advantage when there are runners on base. The pressure is squarely on the pitcher. "I learned that when I'm focused and I swing at strikes," he said, "they don't want to pitch to me."

Cano is hitting .351 (20-for-57) with runners in scoring position, a far cry from last year when he hit .207 (38-for-184). Cano's failure in those situations was the only thing holding back a productive season (.320, 25 home runs) from becoming a great one.

Cano remembers thinking in spring training that hitting fifth was his "second chance" to prove he could be a middle-of-the-lineup slugger for the Yankees.

"I was ready for it," he said.

And anyone who's seen him play this year certainly would agree. Nearly a third of the way through the regular season, Cano is near the top of almost every offensive category. Hours after being named AL Player of the Week, Cano last night extended his hitting streak to 15 games with a fourth-inning single against the Orioles.

"His season so far has been amazing," Joe Girardi said. "He's hitting the ball well regardless of whether it's a lefthander or righthander. To me, it just shows that he's maturing."

"I would say it was just a little click," Cano said. "Because I always worked hard. Maturing is about getting experience and also, really, here's the thing, it's swinging at strikes. That makes a big difference. I mean, I have 13 walks right now. I was never like that before."

While no one is going to confuse Cano's at-bats with Nick Johnson's, it's still worth noting that Cano entered last night averaging 3.54 pitches per plate appearance, a career best. That shows Cano understands the more he forces the opposition to throw him strikes, the more productive he's going to be.

How good could Cano be? The Yankees probably should thank the Rangers for letting them find out.

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