TORONTO – Robinson Cano was exasperated. He waved his hands toward the scoreboard operator’s booth at Yankee Stadium, futilely trying to get some music pumping during early batting practice. Cano never got the music a few weeks ago, but he did get his swings. Cano always gets his swings.
For a team that has the best record in Major League baseball, the Yankees have spent a lot of time explaining what has gone awry. A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez have had too many erratic starts. Joba Chamberlain fumbled away his job as the eighth-inning setup man. Mark Teixeira was missing for most of April and May. Derek Jeter’s average is over 50 points lower than last season’s average. Alex Rodriguez’s average and home run totals are down, too.
But, other than some occasional blips, Cano has been the constant in the Yankees’ lineup. He has been the best player on the best team, a remarkably reliable hitter who teams now approach more cautiously than Rodriguez or Teixeira. Opposing players have told me that Cano is the Yankee they most discuss in scouting meetings.
Cano continued to flash his maturity and his talent as a hitter as he blasted a grand slam and drove in six runs in a 10-0 thrashing of the Mariners on Sunday. After Luke French struck out Cano with a changeup in the first inning, Cano hit a first-pitch changeup for a grand slam in the fifth. That’s maturity. Cano also reached across the plate to slap Chris Seddon’s outside pitch for a two-run single in the sixth. That’s talent.
Since Rodriguez is on the disabled list with a calf injury and can’t be activated until September 5, Cano will keep commandeering a more high-profile spot as the cleanup hitter. Remember the questions in Spring Training about whether Cano could protect Rodriguez as the Yankees’ No. 5 hitter? Cano made those questions vanish before April was over.
Now Cano has eliminated any doubts about whether he can fill in for Rodriguez in the cleanup spot as well. The Yankees are 12-0 in games Rodriguez that hasn’t played, a startling and quirky statistic that is difficult to explain. But Cano is obviously a significant part of the explanation. In a dozen games as the cleanup hitter, Cano is batting .375 with six homers, 19 runs batted, a .455 on base percentage and a .792 slugging percentage. He acknowledged the importance of replacing Rodriguez.
“Now it’s time for me,” Cano said, “to step up and win games.”
If the Yankee wanted to trumpet Cano as a Most Valuable Player candidate, they could start by highlighting his numbers as a cleanup hitter. The public relations pitch would be simple: How good has Cano been? So good that he has helped the Yankees not miss A-Rod, a player who was won three MVP awards.
"He's growing up right in front of our eyes," Rodriguez said. "He's slowly but surely becoming one of the elite players in our league."
Can Cano win the MVP? Absolutely. He is batting .325 with 25 homers and 86 RBIs, robust power statistics that are rare for a second baseman. The Yankees have 38 games remaining and Cano has already matched his home run and RBI totals from last season. While Cano’s defense doesn’t get enough attention, he has incredibly fast hands in turning double plays and has become more proficient at fielding balls to his left.
Will Cano win the MVP? That answer is unknown and will be determined across the next six weeks. Josh Hamilton (.357, 28 homers, 88 RBIs) of the first-place Texas Rangers is probably the leading candidate. Miguel Cabrera (.342, 31, 102) is another strong candidate, but his candidacy will be bruised if the underachieving Detroit Tigers don’t muscle their way into post-season contention.
Cano has referred to Rodriguez as his “big brother,” but throughout Cano’s superb season, the little brother has produced the most valuable hits for the Yankees. If Cano keeps flourishing, especially in Rodriguez’s absence, he could end up being more valuable than anyone in the American League.
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