Jim Fregosi was on a trajectory similar to Scott Rolen through his age-29 season.
Even now, a half-century later, Fregosi’s 45.9 Wins Above Replacement before age 30 is tied for 52nd all-time with Rolen — at least a borderline Hall of Famer — and Alan Trammell — an actual Hall of Famer; it’s slightly better than Cooperstown enshrinees Joe Morgan and Tim Raines.
But Fregosi is not remembered best for that or his six All-Star Games or a pretty strong managerial resume that included guiding the 1993 Phillies to the NL title. Fregosi was traded by the Angels after his age-29 season to the Mets for four players. One of them was Nolan Ryan. Fregosi was a terrible Met. Ryan’s Hall of Fame career truly launched once liberated by the Angels.
Fregosi for the better part of five decades now has been a symbol of acquiring a famous player on the downside at the cost of greatness that had not yet burgeoned.
Robinson Cano is in that unsweet spot now — being traded to the Mets and the aftermath potentially devaluing the rest of his career. The cost for the Mets to obtain Edwin Diaz after the 2018 season was surrendering top prospect Jarred Kelenic, but also taking on the brunt of the final five years left on Cano’s five-year, $120 million pact. But the Mets did not view that as a tax. Brodie Van Wagenen, who had been Cano’s agent prior to becoming Mets GM after the 2018 campaign, saw Cano as an asset, as a baseball savant with plenty left despite being 36.
But Cano was a Fregosi Met in 2019 and Kelenic catapulted from well-regarded prospect to elite for the Mariners — top 11 in the whole game by Baseball America, MLB and Baseball Prospectus.
At this moment the trade has Ryan overtones, bad with a chance to be disastrous for the Mets. Diaz is the key to salvaging the deal, if he regains 2018 status and the Mets win. But Cano presents two large problems exacerbated worse if he does not perform considerably better:
1. Structurally, the Mets would have worked better last year if Jeff McNeil was the second baseman, and that is probably true moving forward as well.
2. Financially, the Mariners took on Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak and are giving the Mets $3.75 million annually over the final four seasons of a contract that pays Cano $24 million per year through 2023 (though obviously nothing right now while the sport is shut down). Still, that is a big payday. Bigger still if Cano does not perform well. Bigger yet when you consider the financial plight of the Wilpons and what kind of cuts may be necessitated if they are unable to sell the Mets. Having Cano will mean not having who else?
Should the Mets have seen this coming? In 1971 teams were not as sophisticated. Fregosi was a star. Ryan was a frustration. The understanding of the aging curve and the need for patience were not as fully appreciated. So letting Ryan work further through his wildness was not in the mindset, nor was noticing that after being an elite player in the eight seasons from 1963-70, Fregosi crashed in 1971. From 1963-70, Fregosi was seventh in WAR (a metric that did not exist then), ranking between Frank Robinson and Willie McCovey. In 1971, he plummeted to the minor league fill-in level of 0.8. The Angels were playing him in left field by year’s end, noting his body (even at 29) could no longer handle full-time shortstop. The Mets traded for him to be a third baseman.
Teams should be more sophisticated now. In the eight seasons from 2009-16, Cano led the majors in WAR, just ahead of Miguel Cabrera. But the numbers dropped for 2017-18, his age-34 and -35 seasons. Cano went on the injured list in 2017 and ‘18, the first time since 2006. He served an 80-game suspension in 2018 after testing positive for a banned substance. Teams no longer wanted to take on players beyond their peak years. But Van Wagenen felt he knew Cano and what was inside him chemically and as a player. What he clearly did not have a feel for was what kind of jump Kelenic would take in 2019 and what that would do for his value.
The failed PED test does a lot to cripple Cano’s Hall of Fame chances and so does the absence of games now as it will become harder for him to reach milestones of 3,000 hits (he has 2,570) and 400 homers (he has 324).
Submit your Mets questions here to be answered in an upcoming Post mailbag
Can Cano still handle second base regularly at 37, then 38, then 39 and 40? Because with Pete Alonso at first, that position is blocked. Even if the DH comes to the NL, do you want to give a fading version of Cano those at-bats? Can he stay healthy after going on the IL three times in 2019?
The answers are wait and see, as the Mets hope the answer doesn’t continue to be Fregosi.
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