In recent days there has been some attention focused on the New York Yankees plans regarding Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, both of whom are due to become free agents after 2013. Cano and Granderson were the two most valuable hitters on the Yankees last year and are critical parts of the Yankee plans for the immediate future. They also both play solid to good defense at key positions. If Cano continues to hit over the next two years the way he has during the last three years, the Yankees will have good reason to try to resign him, but he will be expensive.
The question of Cano’s future with the Yankees also raises the question of where Cano fits among other great Yankee second baseman. Second base has not been a position like catcher or center field where the Yankees have had Hall of Famers and near Hall Famers for good chunks of the last 75 years. The Hall of Fame second baseman who have played for the Yankees, Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon, either did not play very long for the Yankees or were borderline Hall of Famers. Other second baseman who have contributed to Yankee championships like Chuck Knoblauch, Bobby Richardson or Jerry Coleman were solid to very good ballplayers who clearly fall short of greatness.
The most intriguing second baseman of the past may have been Willie Randolph. Randolph received very little attention from Hall of Fame voters, but was a very good player for a number of years. Randolph was quiet, played solid if unspectacular defense and walked a lot so was overshadowed by flashier, more colorful and better teammates during much of his time with the Yankees. However, Randolph played more games at second base, 1,694 than any other Yankee. Randolph had almost no power, hitting only 48 home runs from 1976-1988, his years with the Yankees. He contributed offensively largely through his OBP of .374 which was very good for a middle infielder during the era in which Randolph played for the Yankees. In fact, no other middle infielder who appeared in more than 1,400 games posted a better OBP during those years.
Gordon and Lazzeri are Hall of Famers, but were not necessarily better than Randolph during their years with the Yankees. Gordon, due to the war and a trade to the Indians, only played 970 games for the Yankees but was a better hitter during those years than Randolph, posting an OPS+ of 120 compared to 105 for Randolph for his years with the Yankees. The relative brevity of Gordon’s time with the Yankees make him a flawed candidate for greatest Yankee second baseman ever.
Tony Lazzeri is today probably mostly remembered for his dramatic strikeout against an aging, and according to the story not quite sober, Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1926 World Series, but Lazzeri in addition to being probably the second greatest baseball player to graduate from San Francisco’s Galileo High School, is the only serious competition to Randolph for greatest Yankee second baseman. Lazzeri was a very strong hitter for a middle infielder and one of the major offensive contributors to the Murderer’s Row Yankees of the late 1920s. Lazzeri played 35 fewer games at second base for the Yankees than Randolph but, due primarily to his greater power, was a better hitter than Randolph. Lazzeri’s 120 OPS+ during his Yankee years was the same as Gordon’s but Lazzeri hit that way for almost twice as long. Lazzeri was the better hitter, but Randolph was a better fielder and baserunner. Presumably because of his defense and base running, Fangraphs and Baseball Reference both give Randolph a very slight edge in WAR during the years they were both with the Yankees, but the choice between Randolph and Lazzeri is very close with no wrong choice.
Where then does Cano fit with Lazzeri and Randolph? Cano has already played 1,043 games at second with the Yankees so, barring injury, should be over 1,300 by the end of 2013. His OPS+ thus far is 119, slightly below that of Lazzeri but better than Randolph. Cano will be 29 this year so his place in Yankee history, even before his free agent year, depends on his rate of decline. If he hits as well in his 29-30 years as he did in his 26-28 years, Cano will be poised to move into the conversation for greatest Yankee second baseman ever just as he is becoming a free agent.
Cano’s place among Yankee second baseman is framed by the same question the Yankees will have to ask after 2013: whether or not Cano will, by that time, be in the decline phase of his career. If Cano can hit the way he did in 2009-2011 between 2012-2015, he will, assuming he stays with the Yankees, have a strong claim on being the greatest Yankee second baseman ever, with more games at the position than any other Yankee and offensive numbers comparable to Lazzeri and Gordon. There is, of course, no guarantee that Cano can achieve this. If he begins his decline after 2013 or 2014, he will probably be remembered as only the third greatest Yankee at his position; and the Yankees will find themselves with a contract that will be very tough to move.