Despite Criticism, Cano Remains Second To None

We have reached the midpoint of the 2011 season for the New York Yankees. Despite the pundits dire predictions about their so-called “suspect” starting rotation, they have the second-best record in baseball and the best record in the American League. They finished the first half on a seven-game winning streak and they were 30-12 (.714) from May 17 to July 2, the best record in baseball. Now it is time to hand out our annual report cards for the players who built that record. 

SECOND BASE – ROBINSON CANO (,292 BA, 14 HRS, 54 RBIs)

After Robinson Cano’s breakout season of 2010, it was hard to imagine how the 28-year-old second baseman could top it. He hit a team-best .319 with 29 home runs and 109 RBIs. He won both the Silver Slugger Award and a Gold Glove at his position.

How do you top that?

As Cano has witnessed in the team’s first 81 games. You don’t really.

Cano, however, remains the best hitter on the Yankees and the best second baseman in baseball. His first half pretty much proved it and he was voted to start his second straight All-Star Game. All this despite the fact his season was not quite as good as his season in 2010.

The funny thing about Cano is that he is still a superstar that is defining himself even though he is in his seventh season. Those batting titles he was predicted to win have not materialized. His fielding is still wonderful and effortless but fans and critics say he can do more. It is not easy to have all that talent and be able to shape it into what other people think it should be. Cano just seems to be content letting his bat and glove do the shaping and not worry about what people are thinking.

If you double his first half home run and RBI numbers, Cano is right in line with his 2010 numbers. His batting average is 16 points lower than 2010 but only 11 below his career .303 average. It is not hard to imagine that as the warm summer months unfold, Cano’s bat will catch fire as well. He has always been a better second-half hitter. There is nothing to suggest it won’t be the case this season.

There are those who believe, and I am among them, that Cano would actually be the ideal No. 3 hitter for this team. The reason is the No. 3 spot is always reserved for the team’s most feared hitter. Opposing managers will tell you they fear Cano more than any other hitter in the Yankees’ lineup.

It is because his swing is so effortless and the ball jumps so hard off his bat that he can turn a game with a key hit. Managers bring in lefties to neutralize him. But Cano merely hits them better than he does right-handers. Cano is hitting a ridiculous .347 against left-handers and a very pedestrian .270 against right-handers this season. So when you see a manager coming out to the mound to bring in a left-hander they are actually playing into Cano’s strength. Like a cobra, Cano can bite the best-laid of plans to get him out.

There have been clamors about his defense this season. The range is still there. He is also making the most difficult plays look easy. But Cano set a high standard last season by committing only three errors.

Much like his lofty hitting, the standard is hard to maintain. So Cano has made six errors and most of those came on routine plays.

That is the curse of being Cano. When the game is so easy to play it is sometimes easy to get bored with the perfection you play it. Cano sometimes does fall into that trap of looking lazy and disinterested. But it is not really true. Can’s defense is still as sterling as it ever was and it would be a crime of he did not collect another Gold Glove in 2011.

See the big question is that if Cano is not the best second baseman in baseball, who is? Dustin Pedroia? He’s hitting .278 with less power and production. Danny Espinosa of Washington has 15 home runs and Kelly Johnson of Arizona has 14. But they are both hitting south of ,244. Ian Kinsler of Texas and Chase Utley of Philadelphia have had off-seasons and have dealt with injuries. Dan Uggla of Atlanta has more power, but he is not a hitter for average and he is a butcher in the field with limited range.

Rickie Weeks of Milwaukee comes the closest to Cano’s physical gifts. He can run better than Cano. But he is not the fielder Cano is.

So the best thing Yankee fans can do is appreciate what Cano is and what he is providing. They are not likely to see a better second baseman in the history of the franchise. Think of him as an Alfonso Soriano who can field like Roberto Alomar and you get a measure of what Cano means to this team. If this team is to win it all in 2011, Cano will have be right in the middle of it — hitting and fielding.

He may not win that batting title this season. But I think Cano would gladly forego it for a championship ring.

Cano deserves an A- for his first half. The only knock is the .292 average, which I believe will be in the .300 range by season’s end, barring injury. They just do not come any better than Cano.

OTHERS

Here is another Cano trait: He is durable. He has started 79 of the team’s 81 games. Eduardo Nunez started the other two and you are less likely to see Nunez here than you will at short and third for two reasons. One is that it is not a position he is as suited to play. The other is he is needed more often to replace the older Jeter (37) at short and Rodriguez (35) at third. The Yankees also have Ramiro Pena on the roster to play second base.

Nunez starred as a hitter replacing Jeter at shortstop but still needs work in the field at age 24. But the fact he hit .339 in place of Jeter is not lost among manager Joe Girardi. It will be Girardi’s task to find places for Nunez to play so he can get his bat in the lineup more. The fact the team sent outfielder Chris Dickerson back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make room on the roster for Jeter is one clue. Nunez might be seeing more time in the outfield in the second half.

Pena, 25, who is hitting .111, is the opposite of Nunez. He can play infield with the best of them but he won’t hit much. His real value is that he is the team’s best bunter and he can steal a base or two even though he is not as fast as Nunez.

At the minor-league level, the Yankees’ best second base prospect is Reegie Corona, a 25-year-old switch-hitter. However, Corona is on the 60-day disabled list with a broken arm suffered during the winter. He has a long way to go in his rehab and it just looks like a lost season for him.

Kevin Russo, 27, is playing second base in Scranton and he is hitting .278 with a home run and 28 RBIs. He is solid in the field but he is not the athlete Corona is and he is a long dropoff from Cano at the position. We likely will not see Russo unless something happens to Pena or Nunez.

FIRST HALF GRADES

Cano A-

Nunez B

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-

Cano is right where he should be in production and he should be better with his hitting and fielding in the second half. The Yankees rely on Cano for so much that he gets taken for granted at times. But managers, coaches and scouts from opposing teams think he is the most dangerous hitter in this lineup. That is a scary thought considering Rodriguez was “that guy” for so long and he still is pretty scary. Just enjoy the second half of watching Cano making everything look easy and helping lead this team to a division title and beyond.

It is almost assured Cano will do just that.

NEXT: THIRD BASE

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