(Photo Credit: REUTERS/RICK OSENTOSKI)
Seattle finished the 2017 season at 78-84, 23 games back of the AL West-winning HOUSTON Astros and seven games back from a spot in the AL Wild Card play-in game.
So a 22-17 start to this year had fans dreaming of snapping their postseason drought, which is the longest in North America's "big 4" leagues. Part of the reason for their hot start, outside of James Paxton's no-hitter and Mitch Haniger's surprising pop, is the play of second baseman Robinson Cano.
Cano has been a somewhat forgotten figure since his ten-year, $240m free agent signing before the 2014 season, but his level of play is still close to what it was when he was wearing pinstripes for the New York Yankees. On Sunday, though, disaster struck in the shape of a Blaine Hardy pitch that struck him in the hand. The result was a broken metacarpal. While the exact timeline for Cano's injury is not yet fully known, it will be unlikely that he is back at a major league plate before the All-Star Break, especially if it ends up requiring surgery.
What the Mariners will be missing
Cano may be 35, but he has been the Mariners best position player this season. He has a 1.4 WAR (per Fangraphs), a +2.2 defensive rating, and a 128 wRC+. In short, he has been very good.
His traditional numbers don't look like much, with four homers, 23 RBI, and a .287/.385/.441 slash line, but that on-base is wildly important to the team and well ahead of anyone other than the red-hot Haniger.
Cano was especially effective at extending plate appearances and seemed to have remodeled his game this year to more selective than ever. His walk rate is a spectacular 12.4% up from 7.6% last year and easily the best of his career. He is swinging at less than half of the pitches he sees, causing that spike in on-base percentage (and a slight uptick in strikeout rate), and thus helping everyone around him.
Losing your best hitter is never a good thing, especially in a season where the AL Wild Card race is effectively for one spot thanks to the Red Sox and Yankees, and with the Angels playing well out of the blocks and the Astros still being the Astros, the Mariners are facing serious competition this year.
How can the Mariners replace Cano?
The obvious answer is that they can't, but someone has to take his spot. The clear replacement is middle infielder Andrew Romine, but he is pretty awful at the plate, posting just a 52 wRC+ with a slash line of .185/.290/.222 in 32 plate appearances.
Their other option would disrupt their defense more, and it would be to drop Dee Gordon down to second base, where he spent a long time playing for Miami, and then give more at-bats to fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia. He is a far better hitter than Romine, but Gordon is one of the best defensive center fielders around and was more inconsistent at the middle infield spots. Does Heredia's bat make up for worse defense? Does the extra run prevention Romine provides cover for his nonexistent bat? These are questions manager Scott Servais will have to find answers for because despite a good start, the Mariners are already 2.5 games behind the Astros in the AL West, and 1.5 back of the Angels for the second wildcard spot.
This injury could be a killer for a team where every win is going to matter.