In a day in age where a Major League manager’s most important job is managing clubhouse personalities, one of the biggest challenges that new Mets manager Buck Showalter faces in his inaugural season as the team’s skipper is navigating the Robinson Cano playing time situation.
At 39 years old and having missed the entire 2021 season owing to a second positive performance-enhancing drug test, Cano is set to make $20.25 million that will count against the Mets luxury tax in 2022, according to Spotrac. For most teams in MLB today and for the Mets under previous ownership, not starting a player making that much money is simply not an option. But that may very well be one that Showalter needs to make.
It is too early to bury Cano and say that he is finished. After a lackluster first season in Flushing, he bounced back in 49 games during the shortened 2020 season to hit .316/.352/.544, good for a 143 OPS+, his best since his last year with the Yankees in 2013 and third-best of his career. But Father Time is undefeated against anyone not named Tom Brady, and so you have to wonder what he will be able to do after a full year off.
If Cano returns in 2022 and doesn’t have it, it should be an easy decision to make him a part-time player. Steve Cohen has shown an irreverence toward the new Competitive Balance Tax rules, and with that in mind it wouldn’t be surprising if he is more in favor of his manager benching a $20 million player than most owners would be.
The more interesting problem for the Mets – and it would be a good one to have – is what to do if he comes back and is a productive hitter? The addition of the designated hitter to the NL gives the club a little more flexibility, but there is already a logjam there before Cano is thrown into the mix, as Brian Joura wrote on Sunday.
There is, of course, the old standby of second base, where Jeff McNeil struggled through an injury-plagued 2021 season. If McNeil struggles again in 2022, it might be an easy play to find Cano more regular at-bats as a second baseman and have McNeil fill a utility role that Cano cannot.
And then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that is New York City’s private sector COVID-19 vaccine mandate and how that may impact the Mets. Casting 100% aside any political opinions on the mandate, there is a very real chance that this has a huge impact on the Mets season and the kind of team that they will be able to field at home.
We don’t know Cano’s vaccination status, nor do we for a majority of the Mets players. We do know that in 2021, the Mets were among the least-vaccinated teams in baseball, but obviously a lot has happened since then both societally and on the Mets roster. Right now though, it doesn’t seem like there will be exceptions carved out for Mets and Yankees players, nor should there be – it either applies to everyone or no one, no exceptions because you are a pro athlete.
If he is vaccinated, it’s easy to see a role where he is someone who plays most at home filling in for those who are prevented from playing and then takes on a bench role on the road. If he isn’t, maybe the opposite is true, where he plays a starting role away from Citi Field.