It was a desperate attempt last year when the Yankees called up two relatively unheralded rookies to try to turn around what had been a dismal season to that point. No one knows whether or not that move actually righted the Yankees’ seemingly sinking ship, but it was just around that time that the Bronx Bombers rebounded.
Just a little over a year later, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang has emerged as arguably the ace of the staff, and Robinson Cano is the starting second baseman. Tonight in Chicago, Cano will make his return from the Disabled List, where he spent the past few weeks recovering from an injured hamstring.
Last year, no one even knew how to pronounce his name, but now he’s a .325 hitter. He opened up the eyes of Yankee fans last year, and this year he picked up right where he left off — at least until he tweaked the hammy in late June. And now he’s (supposedly) healthy and ready to reclaim his spot from Miguel Cairo. Cairo is a perfect fit for the Yankee bench, and he’s capable of filling in for a while, as he did during Cano’s recent absence, but he’s not an everyday player. Miguel Cairo is a newer version of Luis Sojo; he’s a nice part-time player and he seems like a great clubhouse guy, but he just doesn’t contribute what Cano does on a daily basis.
Still, most Yankee fans would be hard pressed to articulate exactly what makes Cano — aside from his batting average, which the sabermatricians will tell you doesn’t mean that much anyway — so good. He doesn’t hit for a ton of power, hitting just four homeruns in 271 at-bats so far this season after clubbing 14 in his rookie year last year. He doesn’t walk much at all, which really could be called his big weak spot, but he has improved in that area this year. He doesn’t have a lot of speed, stealing just four bags in his career while being caught five times. He doesn’t play even play spectacular defense and, although he makes some nice plays every once in a while, probably won’t be considered for a Gold Glove anytime soon.
But still, there’s just something about Robinson Cano that makes him a solid big league ballplayer, capable of starting for a top-tier team like the Yankees, and one of the better second basemen in the league.
Maybe it’s because he’s everything that Alfonso Soriano wasn’t. Maybe it’s because, despite the lack of power and speed, he’s an intelligent, consistent player who comes through when it counts and does the little things that help the team win. Maybe it’s because, even though he’ll never come close to a 40/40 season, he might just come up with a big hit in the playoffs instead of setting a record for the most strikeouts in a single postseason. Maybe it’s because, even though he won’t hit a ton of homeruns, he probably won’t end up with a single after watching a deep fly ball bounce off the outfield fence. Maybe it’s because he probably won’t get picked off of first base when he represents the tying run in the eighth inning.
Maybe it’s because Cano is a battler. Maybe it’s because Cano is a little different from the guys who have failed to win a World Championship in each of the past five seasons. Maybe it’s because, even though Cano doesn’t have the ability of A-Rod, he has the heart, and the knack for a clutch hit, of a Scott Brosius, the makeup of those guys who did bring back title after title after title.
Maybe it’s not even what he is now, but rather the promise of what he will become that makes Robinson Cano such a fan favorite in the borrough of the Bronx. He won’t ever be A-Rod, but there’s no reason that he can’t be an infield version of Paul O’Neill, another guy who wasn’t great at anything but good at everything, a "warrior" in the words of George Steinbrenner. Cano is holding his own in the American League East — where he faces pitchers like Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, and Scott Kazmir — and he won’t turn 24 years old until December. And the Yankee lineup is one of the few in baseball that can allow a player like Cano to hide. While he would be hitting in a power spot in the Devil Rays’ order, Cano is just one of nine in the Yankee lineup. It’s not often that being in New York reduces pressure, but the criticism of losses will fall on other, more highly-paid players — one in particular — which allows Robinson to fly under the radar, making it easier to reach the full potential that seems so great.
The eventual returns of Hideki Matsui and maybe even Gary Sheffield will probably be marked with more fireworks than Cano’s will be tonight. In Cano, the Yankees aren’t getting an M.V.P. candidate, a defensive whiz, or a speedster. What they are getting is someone who does everything well, a gamer who is great for a contending team now and could very well emerge as a leader of this team in the not-so-distant future.
The lure of the most modern Yankee dynasty was the lack of a superstar and the core of home-grown ballplayers. While this team certainly won’t be devoid of superstars, Cano certainly fits the bill for the second criteria. Once upon a time, it was Jeter and Bernie and Andy and Mo and even Jorge. In a few years, when those guys are on their way out, it could very easily be Wang and Cano and maybe even Melky. Perhaps it will even be Hughes and Cox and Tabata and Gardner.
But right now, it’s Cano and Rodriguez and Jeter and Giambi and Abreu and Damon and Wang and Johnson and Rivera.
And they’re gunning for World Championship number 27.