Joe Morgan is unquestionably one of the greatest second basemen in baseball history. Bill James ranks him No. 1, others put him behind Rogers Hornsby and maybe Eddie Collins, I’ve seen him on lists behind Nap Lajoie too. But everyone would agree he’s one of the best ever.
After Joe Morgan’s 30-year-old season, he had 5,939 plate appearances.
Robinson Cano, who just finished his 30-year-old season, has 5,791 plate appearances.
How do they rate against each other so far? Morgan was better. Not a lot better. But better. The numbers are difficult to compare because they played in very different eras. But Morgan created a few more runs (922 to 905) even though he played in a significantly lower scoring time and played his early years in Houston, when the Astrodome was the monster who ate offense. Morgan got on base more often, which is the main thing. Morgan also stole 378 bases, Cano 38. The defensive numbers seem to give Cano an edge in defense which makes some sense, but Morgan was a good fielder too.
Like I say, it’s pretty close. But Morgan had 54.2 WAR after 30, Cano is at 45.2 WAR. I think Morgan was a bit better..
But what happened to Morgan after age 30? And what can that tell us about Cano? The Mariners just gave Cano a 10-year-deal worth, if I heard correctly, 473 billionshmillionzillionvillion dollars. I don’t want to go over all the failed long term deals to 30-something players again. I don’t want to write that the deal will unquestionably backfire on the Mariner.
No, instead, I wonder: What if Cano follows the Joe Morgan path?
Year 1 of the deal: At 31, Joe Morgan had one of the greatest seasons ever for a second baseman. He hit .327, led the league with .466 on-base percentage, had 50 extra base hits (and a .508 slugging percentage), stole 67 bases and was caught just 10 times, scored 107 runs, drove in 94 runs, won the Gold Glove and was the best player on what I still believe was the best eight-man team ever to take the field (the pitching … not so much). He had an insane 11.0 WAR — worth something like $55 million on the open market by Fangraphs calculator.
So, let’s say that Cano does this — has a season for the ages.
His contract is really worth $240 million. Subtract $55 million. We’re down to $185 million already.
Year 2 of the deal: Ugh, I miscounted this the first time — thank you BR Devin — so I have to rework all the numbers. Blah! But here we go:
Morgan was, in some ways, even better than in 1975. He led the league in on-base percentage again (.444), but this time led the league in slugging too (.576). He tacked on 13 doubles and 10 homers to his insane 1975 season, scored 113 runs, drove in 111 runs, stole 60 bases and was caught just nine times, won another Gold Glove and was, once again, the best player on what I still believe was the best eight-man team ever to take the field.
Because his OBP was down a little and because runs were a bit and his defense wasn’t rated as well, his WAR dropped to a merely awesome 9.5. That’s roughly $47.5 million in value. The money is just pouring off.
Should Cano match this, his contract is now down to $137.5 million. This might turn out being a bargain!
Year 3 of the deal: Morgan was still good at 33. He was not nearly as good as the previous two seasons. But he was good. He posted a .417 OBP, stole 49 bases, had 49 extra base hits, scored 113 runs. But his defense did fall off some more and he was beginning to show his age. Still a 5.8 WAR season is awfully good — there are plenty of MVPs who did not have a 5.8 WAR.
So that’s worth 29 million — more than Cano is getting per year.
The contract is down to $108.5 million.
Year 4 of the deal: Uh oh. Something happened to Joe Morgan. It might have had something to do with turning 34, but suddenly his line was .236/.347/.385. No Gold Glove … people are realizing that he’s definitely falling off defensively. He stole 19 bases. Injuries popped up — he only played 132 games. It was the first time in 10 years he didn’t play at least 140.
His WAR was 1.8. That’s going to knock off about nine million.
The contract is down to $99.5 million. Hey, we’re below 100 million!
Year 5 of the deal: A rebound year. He only hit .250, but Morgan’s ability to walk gave him a stout .379 on-base percentage. His power was gone, but he did steal 28 bases, and his defense was a bit better. His WAR was 2.6. That’s $13 million off the contract.
We’re down to $86.5 million with five years to pay it off. We can do it!
Year 6 of the deal: Morgan left the Reds and signed a deal with the Houston Astros. It’s sad — all the great players on the Big Red Machine except for Johnny Bench and Dave Concepcion left Cincinnati under somewhat bitter circumstances. Morgan really had a nice year for a 36-year-old second baseman. He led the league with 93 walks, stole 24 bases, hit 11 home runs and seemed to have a better defensive year. But he hit only .243 so the Astros released him.
Anyway, his WAR was 4.0, a nice number. That’s knocking $20 million off the contract.
And we’re down to $66.5 million.
Year 7 of the deal: After the Astros released Morgan, he signed with the San Francisco Giants. He only played 90 games though because of injury — it was a solid 90 games, a lot like the season before. He posted a .371 OBP and scored 47 runs in roughly half a season.
His WAR — 2.3. That knocks $11.5 million off the contract.
And we’re down to $55 million. That’s the size of the Kansas City Royals Gil Meche contract.
Year 8 of the deal: And here it is: The renaissance year from a great player. In 1982, playing for a feisty Giants team, Morgan hit .289/.400/.438 with 14 homers and 24 stolen bases and decent defense. Fangraphs is giving him a 5.2 WAR for that season. Fantastic!
So 5.2 WAR is roughly $26 million off the contract.
Here we go: Two years to shave $29 million off. Can he do it?
Year 9 of the deal: The Giants traded Morgan to Philadelphia — they got MIke Krukow in the deal and he’s STILL with the Giants. Morgan could not quite repeat his magical season at age 39. He hit just .230 for the Phillies. But he still walked a lot, still stole bases at a very high success rate (18 out of 20), still played a professional second base and he posted a 3.5 WAR.
So, that’s $17.5 million off the contract!
We need $11.5 million in the last year to make it happen. That’s a 2.3 WAR season. Can the 40-year-old Morgan do it?
Year 10 of the deal: No. A creaky 40-year-old Joe Morgan finished his career with Oakland. He was more or less shot. He did have a respectable .356 on-base percentage, but with no punch, little speed, and his defense went South to retirement. He posted a 1.3 WAR and called it a career.
BUT … 1.3 WAR is worth $6.5 million.
That means … yes, I got it wrong the first time. Morgan did not make it. I originally thought he did, but because of subtraction errors … well, in the end, even Joe Morgan fell $5 million short.
But, if you look at it in a deeper way, Morgan really did make it. I placed the value of 1 WAR at $5 million — it’s already more than that because of the huge contracts given out this offseason. By the end of 10 years, if teams keep making these huge offers (and they undoubtedly will) the price of 1win above replacement might be $10 million. Anyway, I’m sure that’s what the Mariners were betting on.
If Cano has a Joe Morgan like second half — two of the greatest seasons in baseball history, two or three other very good seasons and offers some value even in his off years by doing something extra — I think it will be a good deal. Does Cano have that in him? That’s an entirely different question.