Let’s talk about the Dodgers for a second.
The aspiration that has repeatedly been cited since Steve Cohen purchased the Mets has been the desire to become the East Coast Dodgers. From the beginning, it’s been an easy comparison to understand: The goal of any team should be to become an organization that 1) has the kind of talented player development group and analytics department to provide a constant stream of talented young players to the roster and 2) invests the financial resources to supplement the roster with the talent necessary to take it over the top.
Part of that investment comes from the kinds of big contracts for star players that the Dodgers have consistently handed out—and with that, the Mets are hopefully starting to catch up, as evidenced by the Francisco Lindor and Max Scherzer contracts. But it also comes from demonstrating a consistent commitment to putting the best team on the field, regardless of financial considerations. Handing out big long-term contracts means that you will sometimes have players whose production is no longer commensurate with the amount of their salary. But while many teams will be intensely hesitant to bench or cut those players due to the financial investment the organization has already made to them, a team that has the aspirations of being like the Dodgers—one that prioritizes winning above maximizing every single possible profit margin—will do what is necessary to ensure that the team is placed in the best position to win.
That combination of player development and willingness to invest, to the surprise of no one, yields results. Here’s a sample of a typical Dodgers lineup, taken from Monday’s game against the Diamondbacks:
1. Mookie Betts (R) RF
2. Freddie Freeman (L) 1B
3. Trea Turner (R) SS
4. Max Muncy (L) 2B
5. Justin Turner (R) 3B
6. Will Smith (R) C
7. Cody Bellinger (L) CF
8. Chris Taylor (R) DH
9. Gavin Lux (L) LF
That, to put it simply, is an absurdly deep lineup, one without a single easy out from one to nine. It is rightfully the envy of every single team in the league, and it should be the kind of example for the Mets to aspire towards.
For all the success the Mets have had up to this point in the year, they cannot say that they boast a group of hitters with that level of depth. Sure, they have some talented players providing excellent production, but there have also consistently been a few holes in the lineup. One has been at the catcher position, where James McCann and Tomás Nido have combined to give some pretty dreadful production. If nothing else, the Mets have something to dream on there, as they can hope that top prospect Francisco Alvarez will eventually be ready (albeit probably not this year) to come and provide solid production at the position.
The other spot that has been a pretty stark black hole on the team has been the designated hitter, and while there are a few people responsible for that lack of production (Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis have had their moments, but neither has been able to hit with any level of consistency), the larger issue is the continued presence—and prevalence—of Robinson Canó.
After missing the entire 2021 season due to a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, it was always a major question mark just how much Canó would have left in the tank when he returned to big league play. The Mets have given him every opportunity to prove himself in the early goings of the season, and the results have been disastrous. Through the team’s first 20 games, he has accrued 40 plate appearances in 11 games played—10 of which were starts, and 7 of which saw him take the field at second base. After Monday’s thrilling win in which Canó went hitless, his batting line stands at .184/.225/.263, with just one home run and adding up to a 50 wRC+.
Look, none of this is exactly surprising. A 39-year-old player suffering a decline in production would hardly be noteworthy in the most ideal of circumstances, and when you consider Canó’s case—the year of inactivity due to the PED suspension on top of likely not benefiting from PEDs anymore—it was always a strong possibility that these would be the results we’d see from him. The only thing surprising is that the team not only apparently felt strongly enough about Canó’s capabilities to give him a major role on the team, but that they still evidently feel positively enough about him to continue to bat him above demonstrably better hitters like Jeff McNeil and Mark Canha in their lineup.
Can he still turn it around? Sure, it’s only been three weeks, and under normal circumstances one might not be inclined to make any rash judgments about a player’s capabilities in this small a sample size. But the fact of the matter is that both the batted ball profile and the eye test paint a grim picture of Canó’s current capabilities.
A trip to Baseball Savant will show us the kind of contact Canó has been making on his swings up to this point in the year, and the outlook is very blue:
The decrease in Canó’s average exit velocity (85.2 after years of consistently being 90+ in years past) is combined with a decrease in launch angle (just 4.4 degrees on average, a loss of almost two degrees from 2020). The predictable result of that? Plenty of weak ground outs, as evidenced by his 62.1% groundball rate—another drastic difference from his career norms. In addition, his whiff rate has also skyrocketed, as it currently stands at 27.2% despite never being above 20% in any other year since 2015.
One other thing that stands out sharply amongst the batted ball data is the amount that Canó is hitting the ball to the opposite field. In years past, he has normally hit somewhere in the range of 25% of balls to the opposite field; this year, that number has risen all the way to 41.4%. While playing all sides of the field is normally a good sign for a hitter, in Canó’s case the sharp increase likely points to him being behind on a larger percentage of pitches and failing to turn on them. That certainly matches the profile of a hitter who has lost a considerable amount of bat speed as his age has caught up to him.
The eye test certainly measures up to what the batted ball data tells us. Quite frankly, Canó looks like a 39-year-old trying to play baseball after sitting out for a whole season. The loss of bat speed, the flailing away at pitches he would have easily handled a few years ago, the absence of any hard contact: it all adds up to the player we have seen be a constant drag on the offense over these past few weeks—and one who continues to come up in high-leverage situations for the team.
It’s only three weeks, sure. Maybe the Mets have some kind of information that we don’t that indicates to them that he will turn it around. But we can’t exactly pretend that Canó is just suffering from some bad luck here. It’s hard to look at any of this and come away from it thinking that Robinson Canó has the skills necessary to be a successful major league baseball player.
This situation is going to come to a head shortly, with the Mets—along with all other major league teams—needing to cut two players after rosters shrink to 26 players on May 1. In all likelihood, one of those players the Mets will cut needs to be a position player. And if we are looking at this from a pure on-the-field perspective—and not taking the salaries of the respective players in question into consideration—there is really no compelling argument for it to be anyone other than Canó.
They obviously won’t cut Nido, as they need two catchers. For a similar reason, it’s probably unlikely that Luis Guillorme would get the axe, as he’s the only real shortstop alternative on the team outside of Lindor. Davis provides the main righty bat off the bench, so he is likely safe. So we’re left with Canó, Smith, and fourth/fifth outfielder Travis Jankowski. And while the latter two players certainly have their faults, they both provide more value and versatility to the roster than Canó does.
Again, Smith has been nothing to write home about yet this year, and it’s fair to wonder if he will ever be able to consistently live up to the potential that he showed in 2019 and 2020. If he doesn’t, the team may need to consider an additional DH upgrade at some point later in the season. But even the bad version of Smith is likely a better bet at the plate than the bad version of Canó, and he also provides a backup at first base (while there have been noises about Canó being able to play there, that is likely an experiment not worth pursuing). And one does have to wonder how things might improve for Smith if he were to receive more consistent playing time instead of losing at-bats so that Canó can continue to serve as the designated hitter. The main argument in favor of cutting Smith is that he has options and thus would not be lost to the team if they went with him over Canó—but that hardly seems like a fair justification for excising a player with more clear talent and potential to help the team win.
Jankowski offers even less promise at the plate than Smith, and in an ideal world he would not have gotten as much playing time as he has in this first month of the season. But with Jeff McNeil being the only other real outfielder on the roster aside from the starting three (and “real” probably needs to be in quotes there, since he remains an infielder at heart), Jankowski does provide some needed additional depth there. His speed also allows him to serve a role as a pinch runner, which is a more meaningful role with the designated hitter making pinch hitting a less common occurrence. Furthermore, Jankowski is out of options, so designating him would mean exposing him to waivers and likely losing him to another club. While most teams should probably not cry over losing a player of Jankowski’s caliber, there’s also no reason to simply throw him away for nothing when he is still capable of serving a purpose on the team (and keeping even worse options like Nick Plummer and Khalil Lee relegated to the minors).
That just leaves Canó, who in his current form serves no meaningful purpose for the team. His offensive “production” as a DH can easily be matched by the Smith/Davis combo, and Guillorme can fill in at second base on days when McNeil needs a rest or is in the outfield. Getting rid of any of the other players over him would either be based on an incredibly dubious belief that Canó still has something left in the tank, or it would be based on the amount of money that is owed to him this year and next. The first option would be a massively questionable position for a front office that is supposed to be transforming itself into a cutting edge group of player evaluators. The second option would be a damning indictment of a franchise who is, quite literally, unwilling to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to their proclamations that money would not be an obstacle towards contending. In this case, they would pretty clearly be prioritizing maximizing every inch of their financial investment at the expense of the well-being of the team.
Canó’s defenders might bring up his clubhouse contributions, and sure, we have no way of knowing exactly how meaningful those contributions may be. But if the clubhouse is going to be destroyed because of the absence of one player, then its foundation was already too fragile to begin with. Simply put, clubhouse considerations cannot override the necessities of putting the best possible team on the field day in and day out. And the best possible team on the field is not, based on all available evidence, going to include Robinson Canó.
Thus, barring unforeseen circumstances over the next few days, the Mets need to cut him. They will be on the hook for his remaining salary for the year, along with an extra $20.25 million for next year. They must simply eat the cost and move on. It is a move that would have been almost unfathomable for the Wilpon Mets, but if this team is truly different under Steve Cohen—if they truly want to rise to the example set by the Dodgers—then they must make the hard and financially painful choice. Doing so will put them on the best possible path towards competing for a postseason berth this year, and it will show that this new era of Mets baseball will be different from the old one.