It’s possible that the key moment in shaping the 2016 Mariners had nothing to do with any of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s many roster moves nor manager Scott Servais’ emphasis on heightened communication.
Nothing to do with an increased attention to analytics, either.
The seminal point in the Mariners’ bridge between a disappointing 2015 season and what lies ahead, starting Monday at Texas, might be a November radio interview on a St. Louis station in which a bitter former employee lashed out.
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Former coach Andy Van Slyke called Robinson Cano “the single worst, third-place, everyday player I’ve ever seen.” He said Cano “couldn’t get a hit when it mattered,” and blamed him for the purge in the front office and on-field staffs.
The rant stunned Cano as much as anyone else. He was recovering at the time in the Dominican Republic from October surgery to correct a double sports hernia — an ailment he played through last season over the final two months.
“Honestly, it didn’t hurt me,” Cano insisted. “A lot of people called me, and I said, ‘I’m not going to waste my time and say anything back.’ I got a call from the Mariners (organization) apologizing because he said all of that stuff.”
Cano prides himself on his ability to block out distractions.
“I’m the kind of person who just gets locked in on what I want to do,” he said. “This is where I want to go, that’s where I’m going. People expect more than what you’re capable of.
“Everybody looks at the money, the big contract, and not the player you are. But what I’ve learned over the years is how to put that off to the side. Just keep moving forward. Keep playing. You still hear it here and there, but it’s OK.”
Cano honed that focus while playing nine seasons for the Yankees in the New York media fishbowl before he jumped to the Mariners after the 2013 season by signing a 10-year deal for $240 million.
But make no mistake: Van Slyke’s words cut deep. They grabbed headlines and threw renewed light on concerns that dated to the moment Cano signed that 10-year deal: At what point do his skills begin to diminish?
Said one teammate: “Robby was (ticked) off.”
The criticism added motivation for Cano to regain his status as one of the game’s premier players. Prior to last season, he was a perennial All-Star who had finished among the top six players in the MVP balloting for five consecutive years.
Cano contends that motivation was already there. He viewed last season as an injury-filled anomaly, one that his workout routine, coupled with a return to full health, would correct — and he believed everyone felt the same way.
Van Slyke’s words proved otherwise.
“Guys who know me know I work hard,” Cano said. “I know what I can do. I’m not a guy who likes to make excuses, but last year I was hurt. I wasn’t able to do the things I normally do. I couldn’t (turn) on that inside pitch.
“I couldn’t get to balls (in the field) that I usually do. This year, I’m healthy, and I pray to God that I stay that way.”
There is no doubt that he wasn’t healthy a year ago.
Cano’s 2015 spring started in tragedy when his beloved grandfather died. Then he experienced stomach problems, which were later corrected through dietary changes.
He got off to a remarkably poor start. He was hitting .236 through June 16 with a .277 on-base percentage and little pop (a .323 slugging percentage). His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) suggested some of it was just bad luck.
Even so … the correlation was devastating. Cano wasn’t hitting, the Mariners were struggling, and when you’re making $24 million a year, you’re a target. Rightfully so.
“I know when you’re not hitting and you’re one of the key guys, and the team is not playing well, you’re going to be criticized,” he said. “I know that. You just have to block it out and do what you can do.”
Cano believed he did that. He batted .322 from June 17 through the end of the season. His on-base percentage climbed to .372 and he hit 19 homers in those 93 games, amassing a .530 slugging percentage over than span.
All three of those slash numbers are above his career norms.
Further, he played the final two months with that double sports hernia. He continued to log time at second base because Nelson Cruz also was nursing injuries and required time as the designated hitter.
Cano soldiered on, but he had no first-step quickness, either in the field or in breaking from the batter’s box.
“When I didn’t run 100 percent, it didn’t get that bad,” he said. “But when I tried to run fast or move quick, that’s when the pain was really bad. It was for one or two minutes, and then it went away. I just had to handle it.”
That Van Slyke, a coach, couldn’t see those limitations simply baffled Cano, who has become accustomed, for example, to the steady drumbeat from the New York media that alleges he regrets his free-agent decision to leave the Yankees.
“I’ve never said that,” Cano insisted again early this spring. “I don’t know where they find it. They always say ‘source’ or ‘friend.’ I’ve never (said that) to a friend or anybody.
“I’m happy to be here (in Seattle) and happy to get my chance here to be able to play to the end of my career, and have fun with the guys and (play in) a city that has treated me so nice.”
That’s why Van Slyke’s words stung.
“He was a guy that always talked to me,” Cano said. “Then he says that. I don’t know how he come he said everybody got fired because of me.”
Nonetheless, Cano’s health drew covert scrutiny early this spring from teammates and club officials. They wanted to see whether he was healthy, whether he could move and do the things he could once do, but couldn’t do a year ago.
It only took a few days.
“Robby’s looking real good,” pitcher Felix Hernandez observed through a smile. “I mean this is the old Robby I know. He can do a lot of things.”
Cano flashed renewed first-step quickness from the start of camp and soon was routinely making defensive plays that too-often eluded him last season because of his various ailments.
“From day one, he’s been moving really well at second base,” Servais said. “The arm span of this guy. He’s got long arms. On ground balls, it’s like rubber-band arms.
“He’s just moving better. He’s getting to balls that people said he couldn’t get to. It’s been very impressive.”
Ask the Mariners to identify the key to success this season and, once they get beyond the cliché of staying healthy, they almost always point to the importance of a productive Cano.
“We need Robby,” Cruz said. “He’s the head of the team. He’s the biggest piece of the puzzle. You can see the difference this spring training. Even in (batting practice), he looks more loose.”
Cano entered the final spring weekend with a .365 average and 10 extra-base hits — including seven home runs — in 52 at-bats. Last Sunday against the Cubs, he hit home runs to all three fields.
“I feel different now,” he said. “I feel I’m able to use my hips. When I’m able to use my hips, it’s easier for me to stay back and be able to swing. I don’t have to cheat. That pitch inside, last year I couldn’t hit that ball.
“The last (homer) was middle in, and to be able to hit (it out) to center …”
Yes, it’s only spring training. Cano is the first to point that out. Nothing counts until Monday, when the Mariners face Rangers lefty Cole Hamels at 1:05 p.m. Pacific time at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas.
Even so, the Mariners say they believe they’ve seen enough this spring to satisfy their biggest concern: Cano looks like Cano.
“I’ve felt good from the beginning,” he said. “Spring training doesn’t count. The biggest thing is to feel good, and be healthy. It’s a lot different. Last year, those ground balls to the side were hard for me to get.
“Now, to be able to get to those feels good again. And when I’m able to go from first to third on a hit to right field, those are the things that I want to test to see how it feels. And it feels good.”
Tell Cano that his teammates view him as the key to the season, and his familiar wide grin, the one that seems to reach to his eyes, shifts to a serious expression. He has long deflected the weight of that responsibility.
From the moment he signed with the Mariners, Cano warned that he wasn’t a one-man salvage team, that a winning club needs many good players. He’s right, of course, and here now was the opportunity to reprise that refrain.
But after a pause, the big smile returned.
“You know what? Let them say that,” Cano said, “because, honestly, I do feel good and healthy. I can move pretty good.”
Maybe someone should thank Van Slyke.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners