PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- It’s the $48 million question facing these Mets.
Can Robinson Cano provide enough bang for the buck to stay on the roster? He’ll be paid that money anyway through 2023 -- barring a third PED suspension of course -- so how long Cano is wearing orange-and-blue this season has zero impact on his personal finances. Or the Mets for that matter, as he’s a sunk cost.
But this isn’t a rebuilding year in Flushing. Owner Steve Cohen has invested more than $280 million in the ’22 Mets to be a World Series contender, and Cano needs to prove himself a useful piece in a part-time role that’s completely new to him while also coming off a year-long ban.
Buck Showalter didn’t blink handing the second base job to Jeff McNeil over the eight-time All-Star as soon as the Mets arrived in camp. That left Cano relegated to DH -- a window that just opened in the NL this year thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement -- along with backing up McNeil and giving first base a shot.
Cano started at DH Wednesday night and is penciled in for his Mets’ first-base debut Thursday against the Nationals after what sounds like very limited work there the past few weeks in Port St. Lucie. He’s played 2,234 games in the majors, but only 14 at first base, all with the Mariners in 2018. As for going back there, Cano smiled.
“Ooof, we’ll try,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
That pretty much sums up Cano’s current situation with the Mets, who have other options for each of his positions -- immediately putting pressure on him to validate his spot. The Angels found themselves in a similar predicament last season with the unproductive Albert Pujols, who was in the final year of his $240-million contract. They chose to eat the remaining $30 million by cutting him in May after he hit .198 with five homers, 12 RBIs and a .622 OPS through 92 plate appearances.
Over his first two pre-suspension seasons with the Mets, a total of 156 games, Cano batted .275 with 23 home runs and a 109 OPS-plus (100 being league average). Now, he’s another year older, with new decision-makers in charge. The GM who traded for him, Brodie Van Wagenen, is long gone, and Cohen (worth an estimated $15 billion) isn’t going to sweat paying Cano’s way off the team if he believes the Mets are better equipped to win without him.
Cano, 39, is aware of all this. But after twice being suspended for PEDs, and forfeiting roughly $36 million as a result, he doesn’t seem to spend much time worrying about his predicament. Cano apologized to his teammates earlier this month upon arriving at Clover Park, but didn’t really offer a public explanation for his behavior or express any regrets -- despite losing a fortune and most likely obliterating any chance at Cooperstown.
“You know what? That’s in the past,” Cano said. “Now you just focus on going out there every day. I feel like a kid in a candy store walking in here every day. It was something that I missed a lot last year. I’m happy to be here and just happy to help contribute to winning games.”
There is another layer to Cano’s value, however, and that’s evident just watching him throughout the day. He’s incredibly popular among his fellow Mets, clear from the nearly constant chatter that starts in the clubhouse and carries over to the batting cage, suggesting that if there was ever any resentment over his PED-related conduct, it’s not an issue any longer.
And this week, after Cano posted a photo on Instagram of him and Francisco Lindor hugging on the field, with the caption, “Teamwork,” the shortstop added in the replies, “Leader.” When asked Wednesday about the post, Lindor answered, “Because he is ... Regardless of mistakes he has made in life, he’s still one of the better players out there.”
Lindor also said Cano remains highly respected on the Mets, and that type of clubhouse clout wields significant weight, especially with a new manager like Showalter on board. The best course is to find as much playing time as possible for Cano early on, and the Mets will hope his bat can still be dangerous.
“I’m aware that there might be an adjustment,” Showalter said. “You’re cognizant and sympathetic to that. But I think he’s so excited to be back with the team and be in a position where he can contribute, it’s going to be where and when as opposed to if right now.”
Cano is going to the get the opportunity. His salary and resume have bought him this one last chance with the Mets. But he’ll need production -- and the sooner, the better -- to keep him there.