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Cano has big shoes to fill -- Matsui's -- but seems up to it

Robinson Cano bats against the Minnesota Twins at

Robinson Cano bats against the Minnesota Twins at Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers, Fla. (March 7, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty

TAMPA, Fla.

The Yankees believe that with a minor adjustment here and a tweak there, Robbie Cano, circa 2010, turns into Robbie Alomar, circa 1996.

In other words, a very good player turns into a guy who at the time seemed destined for the Hall of Fame.

Alomar remains a good bet to get there - he fell eight votes short of election this year, his first on the ballot - and Cano remains a very good player being asked to fill a very key role.

The question of whether he is up to the task, however, remains very much open.

"I don't consider it risky,'' manager Joe Girardi said, "because we're not asking Robbie to do anything differently than he's already done.''

For all the talk at Yankees camp about the competition for the position of No. 5 starter, there has been surprisingly little hand-wringing over the even more vital position of No. 5 hitter in the lineup.

Last year, the spot belonged to Hideki Matsui, but this year, Matsui belongs to the Angels. And the all-important five-hole, the spot between Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, right now belongs to Cano.

No less an authority than Reggie Jackson calls Cano "the best hitter on our ballclub,'' although that assessment is very much on the come, based not so much on what Cano has done but what the Yankees believe he still can do.

The numbers he put up last year - a .320 batting average. 25 home runs, 85 RBIs and 103 runs scored - indicate the transition might be remarkably painless and maybe even an upgrade.

"I think I'm still a guy who can improve and has a lot to learn,'' Cano said. "If you hit 25 homers, you can hit 30. If you hit .320, you can hit .340.''

That kind of production, of course, would go a long way toward filling the void in the lineup left by Matsui's departure.

But there are warning signs as well. Cano drew fewer walks than any other regular in the lineup, and his average with runners in scoring position was .207.

It could take a lot more to replace Matsui, the World Series MVP and as clutch a hitter as the Yankees had late last season, than to simply plug in a hitter with similar numbers.

Cano's numbers compare favorably with those of Matsui (.278-28-90), but as even Cano points out, "He didn't play every day.''

Still, Cano says, "I don't think I need to be Matsui,'' and in truth, two players could hardly be more dissimilar, in temperament and playing style.

Even while he had his every move followed by a sizable Japanese media contingent, Matsui was as low-key and unassuming as any player to inhabit the Yankees' clubhouse in the past 20 years. And on the field, there was never a question that Matsui was giving every ounce he had at every moment.

Cano, on the other hand, cruises ostentatiously through the clubhouse, fist-bumping and chattering loudly, his eyes perpetually masked by wraparound sunglasses.

Cano has been accused of Cadillac-ing on the field as well, although not as often since Girardi benched him for a play against the Rays in September 2008.

"I would say it's unfair,'' Cano said of the perception that his style of play verges on the lackadaisacal. "Anyone who sees me go into the hole for the ball, almost on the shortstop side, knows that I go hard. I know it looks easy, but it's not. That's just the way I play.''

On this, Cano was backed up by Girardi, who said, "Robby has an easiness to him that makes it look like he's not working as hard as some other guys, but he is. I see it day in and day out, whether on the field or in the weight room. His work ethic is tremendous.''

Girardi didn't say "now,'' but it is no secret that Cano was not only embarrassed but confused by the benching, which resulted from his failure to run down a ball in rightfield that had glanced off his glove. In fact, according to general manager Brian Cashman, Cano's first impression was that the manager was showing him up, an impression that was dispelled after Girardi showed him a replay of the incident on his office laptop.

"From that moment on, I've seen a change in Robby,'' Cashman said. "I think we all have. He just had to see it for himself, and see it the way the manager saw it. I don't think we're going to see that problem anymore.''

Now Cashman and Girardi say Cano needs only to improve his pitch selection at the plate to reach the level they believe he belongs at.

"Robbie's got five years in the majors, so I don't consider him a young player anymore,'' Girardi said of his 27-year-old second baseman. "I think he's matured both as a person and as a player, and we expect big things from him this year.''

Said Cano, "No one expects more from me than I expect from myself.''

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