When the Mets appointed former player agent Brodie Van Wagenen to general manager following the 2018 season, they were taking a gamble that he could be a trailblazer of sorts, switching from representing players to acquiring them.
Van Wagenen’s first major move in Queens saw the team ship top outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic, pitching prospect Justin Dunn, pitchers Anthony Swarzak and Gerson Bautista and outfielder Jay Bruce to the Seattle Mariners for second baseman Robinson Canó, closer Edwin Diaz and $20 million.
Diaz was coming off a year where he logged 3.5 fWAR and had a 1.96 ERA, 1.61 FIP and 1.78 xFIP to go along with 57 saves out of Seattle’s bullpen. The righty was also coming with four years of team control.
Canó, of course, was an eight-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger Award recipient and two-time Gold Glove winner at the time of the trade, but was also 36-years-old, and had five years left on his massive 10-year, $240 million deal he signed prior to the 2014 season. Most importantly, he was coming off a steroid suspension.
Apart from trading a top prospect, the Mets also locked themselves into a long-term commitment for an aging infielder, who was coming with a major question on whether he would succeed without the help of steroids.
In his first year in Queens, Canó had just 0.8 fWAR, a 94 wRC+, a .308 wOBA and a pedestrian .256/.307/.428 triple slash in 107 games.
During the shortened 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canó bounced back in a big way, hitting .316/.352/.544 with a 142 wRC+, .376 wOBA and 1.4 fWAR in 49 games.
Then, he was slapped with his second suspension, this one for 162 games, after testing positive for Stanozolol, a performance-enhancing drug.
After serving his suspension, Canó, with two years left on his contract, returned to the Mets for Spring Training this year.
Upon arrival, Canó addressed the media and apologized for his suspension, saying there were “no excuses.”
“I’m here to apologize, first of all to the Mets organization, to my teammates, the fans, and you guys,” Canó said.
When asked why he took the chance in using steroids again, Canó doubled down on his apology, but didn’t elaborate on the question at hand.
“Well, I’m here. That’s why I’m here as a man, to give you guys an apology,” Canó said. “It was tough for me this past year, being at home.”
Overall, Canó was just focused on performing in 2022 and gaining back the trust of the fanbase.
“I’m going to do everything that I can to have them cheer for me again, and like I said, I’ve prepared myself,” Canó said. “Knowing that now we have a great team and being part of it I’ m going to do everything I can to have them cheer for me again.”
The infielder also had the support of general manager Billy Eppler, who said they were all good, and skipper Buck Showalter, who has lauded Canó’s veteran presence in the locker room.
“We’re excited about having him back on the club and contributing. How it maps out, we’ll see what we can handle physically,” Showalter said last month. “It’s good to see how happy he was to be back in the clubhouse, and (It’s) very important to him that he touches a lot of bases before we get going.”
Now two weeks into the regular season, Canó has had a hard time getting going.
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He is just 3-for-16 at the dish, with all of those hits coming via ground ball.
This, of course, is a small sample size, but exactly how much leash will the team allow Canó?
The second baseman is now 39-years-old, is coming off a year-long suspension which followed the pandemic shortened 2020 season, and is looking more like the 2019 Robinson Canó as each game passes.
While Steve Cohen is the richest owner in baseball, Canó is still owed $48 million over this season and next. That’s a big chunk of change.
However, if Canó can’t perform to the level the Mets need him to, it might force Cohen’s hand.
We saw a similar situation unfold recently when the Los Angeles Angels designated Justin Upton for assignment and subsequently released him. He is owed $28 million through this season.
The Mets will likely give Canó ample opportunities to prove himself, but if they are serious about competing this year and he continues to struggle, they may have to reassess matters.
Having a universal designated hitter in 2022 also helps the Mets in this situation, as they can utilize Pete Alonso more in that role, where he had a home run and five RBI on Wednesday in Philadelphia, and a grand slam as the DH on Saturday in Washington. This would give Dominic Smith more chances to play first base, where he is arguably a better defensive fit than Alonso.
Smith played through a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder a season ago and is now healthy after offseason rehab. The 26-year-old raked in Grapefruit League play, slashing .423/.531/.846 with a 1,377 OPS, two home runs and six RBIs in 13 games. But he is off to a slow start of his own, going just 1-for-11 with two walks and eight strikeouts in three starts across six games.
Alonso has also made it clear numerous times that he prefers to play first base on a regular basis.
“I’d rather be out there, but I know that Buck (Showalter) is the one that writes the lineup and he’s trying to win every single day,” Alonso told reporters after his five-RBI day. “I’d love to play first base every day, and Dom’s a great first baseman as well, but I feel like me being out there helps the team the most.
“Buck’s trying to win every single day, so I trust Buck, and every single lineup that he puts out there. He’s all in, I’m all in and I just want to do what I can each day, whether It’s at first base (or not), but I’m a damn good first baseman.
Alonso was asked his thoughts on potentially serving as a DH once or twice a week.
“Whatever my job is that day, I just want to do it well.”
Regardless of Alonso’s preference, if Canó doesn’t pick things up at the plate soon, the Mets must at least consider letting Smith, an upgrade defensively and young player with a high-ceiling, play first base more regularly with Alonso as DH.
Smith was hampered by the injury bug last year and is off to a slow start in 2022, but he averaged a .937 OPS for the Mets from 2019 to 2020. Unlike Canó, Smith still has the chance to reassert himself into the Mets’ long -term plans, but he will need to be given the proper chance of playing every day.
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