Major League Baseball's award season has come and gone, and the debate associated with it has subsided.
Now, no one is saying that Albert Pujols didn't deserve the Most Valuable Player Award in the National League this season. But why was Ryan Howard second? Chase Utley has been the most valuable player on that team for three seasons running. In 2006, he watched Howard win the award. In 2007, a month missed to injury meant Jimmy Rollins got it. In 2008, Utley finished 14th to Howard's second.
Why are Utley's eighth- and 14th-place finishes of the past two years such a travesty? Because he plays second base. Think about how much better Utley is than a second baseman that can be picked up off the scrapheap, and then think about the difference between Howard and the rest of the field at first base. That's a whopping difference. Second base is probably the most difficult position to fill with a productive hitter. Teams that have talented second basemen should hold on to them like grim death.
Robinson Cano is the Yankees' second baseman. After 2007, the Yankees made their move by giving him a handsome contract to buy out his arbitration-eligible years. How did Cano repay their generosity? By putting up a .271/.305/.410 line with bouts of horrendous defense in the field.
Here's what could be bad news for the Yankees: There just isn't much they can do about it. As poorly as Cano played in 2008, where is the upgrade to be had? The Yankees' best hope is that the streaky player puts up lines more reminiscent of his 2007 (.306/.353/.488) or his even-better 2006 (.342/.365/.525. He has three years remaining on his contract, and those don't include the two seasons for which the team holds (expensive) club options. He will be 26 when he plays next season. Time is not running out on him.
Cano has always relied on a high batting average. Let his 2008 serve as a reminder to those who scoff at the value of walks. Batting averages fluctuate much more from season to season than on-base percentages. Some people -- Joe DiMaggio and Ichiro Suzuki for instance -- rely on a consistently unusually high batting average to provide upper-tier offense. (Of course, Ichiro isn't half the player DiMaggio was. Just look at the power, but that's a story for another day.) Others -- Garret Anderson for example -- get way too much praise for their ability to hit for a high average. Those players do so at the expense of their patience. And when the hits don't fall, those players lose almost all their value.
This is why hitting streaks are overrated. Yes, it takes skill to get base hits. But patient hitters don't usually end up with long streaks. That's because their walks cut down on their chances to get hits.
What does that have to do with Cano and 2009? He needs to make sure his on-base percentage is more than 50 points higher than his average. Everyone worries about changing a hitter's approach. "He's aggressive," coaches and announcers will say. "We like that." What teams should like is "productive." Aggressive is just a euphemism for impatient.
Cano's average should return to a more respectable level next season. But unless it soars well over .300, he's not going to be much more than an average hitter. At second base, that's still worth something, but the Yankees' aging lineup needs the few youngsters like Cano to step it up.
As for his defense, Cano is not as bad as he looks. Some metrics have him as well above-average and others have him all over the board. Too many of his fielding shortcomings come from his mental mistakes. Some would say those are unpardonable. The glass-half-full approach is to say those are correctable. And don't count Bronx Cheer among those who are positive Cano misses former third-base and infield coach Larry Bowa. Cano had a bad year at the plate and probably let that accompany him into the field at times. No one knows how much Bowa means to him besides Cano. All this conjecture is just filler.
So, let's say Cano goes .290/.340/.450 next season. It wouldn't be what the Yankees had in mind when they gave him the contract extension, but at least such a line would show that he's hit rock bottom and bounced back.