(Courtesy of Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News)
This didn't work out so well the last time I made a season about one player, or the last time I singled one player out as the one who needed to step up this season, but there's no way to deny that the New York Yankees' 2013 season begins and ends with Robinson Cano. And it has nothing to do with the recent rash of injuries. Well it does, but that's not the only reason. This has been brewing for a few years now, a bunch of different factors all working towards this eventual endgame. The collection of big contracts, the age-related decline, the self-imposed payroll cap plans, all of it has been building to this point, when the fate of the Yankees would be placed on the shoulders of Robbie Cano.
Jeter is still the captain, Mo is still the most respected behind-the-scenes leader, and I'm sure CC carries a fair amount of weight (pun totally intended) around the clubhouse, but make no mistake, this is now Cano's team. It took a while for it to get this point, as Cano sneaky worked his way up the ladder to his current status as the best player on this team, best player at his position, and one of the best players in all of baseball, but it's where he finds himself now on the brink of the 2013 season. It's a cruel coincidence that it's happening at the same time he's entering his walk year and the same time the Steinbrenners are willingly scaling back their spending, and it's those factors that shine the light even brighter on Cano as the biggest focal point this season.
Even if the middle of the Yankee lineup hadn't been gutted by injuries, Cano was still going to be the driving force behind the team's offensive success this year. Still in his prime at age 30, Cano has yet to succumb to the natural age-related decline that has latched onto guys like A-Rod and Teix and has firmly entrenched himself in the #3 spot in the batting order. When Cano is locked in, he can carry the offense for weeks at a time regardless of what those ahead of or behind him in the order are doing. Now that a lot of those players are starting the season on the DL or still working their way back to full game shape, the need for Cano to get locked in and stay locked in becomes even greater.
And if Cano ends up getting hurt and missing a big chunk of time? You can basically cancel the season. That's how important Cano has become to this team. Even without Teix, C-Grand, and A-Rod behind him, there's still reason to think the Yankees can stay competitive because of Cano's presence. Eliminate him from the equation and the lineup really does start to resemble a Quad-A team.
Further magnifying Cano's importance is the contract situation that will hang over everything he does this season. I'll say it again, he didn't hire Scott Boras to help him re-sign at a team-friendly rate. Robbie wants to get paid. The Yankee front office finally smartened up to this a few weeks ago when they broke their own rules and started discussing a contract extension. There's a near-zero chance that Cano and Boras will agree to an extension, knowing their chances to maximize Robbie's contract value are much better on the open market, and the back-and-forth between the sides will surely be the dominant off-the-field story of the year. On the field or off, it's all Cano all the time this year for the Yanks.
If the WBC is any indication, Robbie appears to be well on his way to starting the season hot (12-19, 4 2B, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 22 TB, 1.789 OPS), and that's exactly what the Yankees need. It's also exactly what they don't need because it's going to stoke the media fire right from the start with respect to the contract situation. In a similar vein as this year's rotation, Cano's performance in 2013 and the Yankees' willingness to give him the big contract he wants are going to be major influences on the team's chances to stay competitive in 2014 and beyond. The media knows that, Robbie knows that, we know that, and the front office knows that. Whether he's hitting or slumping, healthy or injured, talking about his contract or not, Robinson Cano is going to be the most consistent and important talking point in Yankeeland in 2013. It took a long time to get here, arguably too long considering how talented he is, but it's finally all about Robbie Cano.