Cano primed for AL MVP Award-type season

All-Star finished 2015 on high note after struggling through first half

Cano primed for AL MVP Award-type season

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was fair to wonder last season, as Robinson Cano struggled through the worst first half of his 11-year career, whether the 33-year-old had begun the inevitable slide in the battle with Father Time.

Cano wasn't selected to the American League All-Star team for the first time in six years. He didn't finish in the top six in AL MVP Award voting for the first time in that same span. Cano wasn't in the conversation for Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards that had become a tradition during his tenure with the Yankees.

But here's the fearless prediction for the Mariners for 2016: Cano will not only have a strong season this year, he'll play well enough to be an AL MVP Award finalist, rejoining the elite players in the game.

Those who have watched the Mariners closely this spring have ample reason to believe. Cano has a rejuvenated look both at the plate and in the field. After double hernia surgery last October, he's feeling healthy and strong, and he's crushed the ball with seven Cactus League home runs and a .365 batting average.

"Robbie is looking like his old self," said ace Felix Hernandez, who saw Cano finish fifth in the AL MVP Award voting in his first season in Seattle in 2014. "It's fun to watch him. He's pretty locked in. It means a lot to this team. He's a big key for us."

How has Cano looked to his new skipper, Scott Servais?

"What's the best way to phrase that?" Servais said. "Fantastic ... how is that? I couldn't be any happier where Robbie is at, physically, mentally, what he's been like in the clubhouse from a leadership standpoint, engaging with his teammates and really helping myself and our coaching staff deliver and pass along the message in how we want to play and what we want to be about.

"It's been non-stop really from day one. It's been very impressive. He's a great player. And Robbie really wants to win. I think it's clear to myself and our coaching staff, and his teammates feel it as well. I think he's got something to prove."

Cano wasn't pleased with last season's struggles. He dealt with a stomach issue early in the season that messed with his diet and sleep, though the bigger issue seemed to be getting into a habit of trying to pull the ball to generate more power as he fought through a .238 first half with just four homers and 24 RBIs.

Must C: Cano's crushed homer

Even during Cano's Yankees heyday -- when he averaged 28 homers, 103 RBIs, a .314 average and .899 OPS his last five years -- he wasn't a big spring power producer. He totaled eight home runs in the six springs prior to this year, so he's nearly matched that in 52 at-bats.

But far more important, Cano says, is just being healthy and able to use his whole body again.

Outlook: Cano, 2B, SEA

"It feels different now," Cano said of his swing. "I'm able to use my hips, and when I'm able to do that, it's easier for me to stay back and be able to swing at the pitches I'm looking for without having to cheat. That pitch inside, last year, I remember I couldn't hit that ball."

Cano put on the ultimate display in a game against the Cubs in Mesa, ripping home runs to left, center and right. Using all fields -- not just for home runs, but for his gap-to-gap line drive approach -- bodes well.

"It's important because I'm a guy that to be able to go the other way, I need to not be jumpy at the plate and be able to hit the ball wherever it comes," Cano said. "If it's inside, hit to right field. If it's away, hit to left field. That tells me that I feel good and I'm healthy."

There are other things, as well. Cano said he's working deeper into counts, trusting himself again. In the field, he's back to the smooth second baseman who looks so relaxed some wonder if he's really trying. Cano's defense has often been overlooked, but it's a big part of his game, and he acknowledges he couldn't move side-to-side well enough to get to balls he's accustomed to fielding.

Cano's defensive metrics slipped along with his offensive numbers in 2015. As a result, a second baseman who averaged 7.3 WAR using Baseball Reference's calculations from 2010-14 dropped to 3.4 last year.

The question now is how far a healthy Cano climbs back up that ladder to join the best players in the game. And the prediction here is that the rebound will be high enough to catapult Cano right back into the AL MVP Award race, which would be good news indeed for a Mariners team looking to surprise in the AL West.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.