3/10/2014 8:50 P.M. ET
Cano's return signals what was lost without him
Not a beat missed on both leadership and production from both sides of plate
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Seattle Mariners can exhale now. Robinson Cano is OK. In fact, Robinson Cano is once again exceptional.
Cano missed four straight days after having a root canal. An infection had been diagnosed during a routine cleaning, he said.
The Mariners, counting on Cano to help transform their club, want him healthy, happy and chipping in on a daily basis. On Monday, they had that in full force.
The fate of Western civilization may not have been threatened by a Robinson Cano root canal, but the well-being of the Mariners is tied closely to every aspect of Cano's performance. Seattle obtained Cano's services with a 10-year, $240 million contract. He is, to put it mildly, the centerpiece of the Mariners' attempt to move up in the devilishly difficult American League West.
For the record, Cano, in his return Monday, did not look like a man who had missed four minutes, much less four days.
Cano was part of the split-squad Mariners who stayed at Peoria Sports Complex to play the Kansas City Royals. When Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon was asked if he had any concern about the missed time affecting Cano's timing, the manager replied:
"No concern whatsoever. If you can hit, you can hit."
Cano can indeed hit. In the first inning Monday, he singled sharply up the middle. In the fourth inning, Cano hit a line-drive single to center. In the sixth, he hit another line-drive single, this one to left. This placed Cano's Spring Training average at .600. After the third hit, he was taken out for a pinch-runner.
Cano had not lost anything with the glove, either. In the first inning, he ranged far to his right up the middle, gloved the ball and made a nifty flip to second to start an impressive inning-ending double play.
It is true that Cano was picked off at third after his second single. But the Royals' starter, James Shields, specializes in that move. Opponents say it is a balk, but without that call, the runner will always be in danger.
"Man, the third baseman was playing shortstop," Cano said with a small smile. "But it's a good thing he [Shields] did that now. Now we know. He got everybody, even the third-base coach. Nobody said anything."
But this play was a mere bump on the road to better days. After a brief absence, the real Robinson Cano was back. The Mariners, while acknowledging that one man cannot carry a franchise, expect him to help out offensively, defensively, tangibly, intangibly, in all sorts of ways. And this is not a wildly unrealistic hope.
Cano's abilities and his production are beyond dispute.
"He's a great offensive player; he's a great defensive player," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said Monday. "All other reasons set aside, you can look at all the metrics, you can look at all the scouting reports, but the bottom line is he's one of the best players in the game. You have a chance to add him, you add him."
But what the Mariners also hope to get for their $240 million is a leader, or at the very least, a teacher, a mentor, a guide. And that already seems to be happening.
"What's good about it is, some of our players, in talking to them, they idolized this guy," Zduriencik said. "When we played the Yankees, they would study his swing; they would study his approach. You look out there in the batting practice sessions now, and he's right in the middle of the whole group. And I do think that there is the earned respect that he already has, there is the instant credibility, when he says something because of his experience and his ability, he should rub off on these players that surround him in this lineup. He brings you great credibility, and it may be a launching pad to help these other players."
Cano is not putting himself forward as Mariner No. 1, but he does clearly grasp how he can help Seattle's young players.
"I don't want to say that I feel I have to be [a leader], but I'm one of the guys that has a lot of service time in the big leagues," Cano said Monday. "I don't know who else has won a [World Series] championship here. I was on a [Yankees] team that missed the playoffs just twice in nine years. I grew up in an organization where everybody else was I don't want to say older than me, but guys who had been in the league and had been successful, had won a lot of championships.
"Growing up in that organization, it was great for me, because there, either way you looked, left or right, you're always going to see somebody you can ask about the game. We've got a lot of young kids here, hungry. They can play this game, but it's just a matter of time. I was a young kid, too, and I had to ask a lot."
A specific example arose Monday, when McClendon was asked what positions were locked down on his club. The manager responded that there would be Cano batting third, Felix Hernandez as the No. 1 starter, Kyle Seager at third, Mike Zunino catching and Justin Smoak at first base.
The Smoak selection had not previously been confrimed. Smoak is a fine defensive first baseman who has yet to reach his considerable potential as a hitter. But McClendon said Smoak was making major strides as a hitter this spring. The manager further said that Cano had been a "tremendous influence" in moving Smoak in the right direction as a hitter.
This is not about determining whether a player could possibly be worth $240 million. The Mariners determined that Cano was worth that, but the argument could last years, even to the length of the contract.
But it was obvious on Monday that Robinson Cano was having a positive influence on the 2014 Seattle Mariners. Post-root canal, he had three hits after missing four days.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.