TAMPA, Fla. -- At one time or another, Alex Rodriguez has been blamed by Yankee fans for just about everything, from global warming to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
And at this time next year, there might something else to blame him for: the very real possibility that Robinson Cano will be in a different team's uniform for spring training 2014.
Call it the Curse of A-Rod, if you like, but you've got to wonder if, when it comes time to pull the trigger on yet another high-ticket, long-term deal, the Yankees will be reluctant to repeat the mistake they made with Rodriguez in 2007.
Cano, indisputably the team's best hitter and, at 30, a player coming into what should be the prime of his career, will be a free agent after this season, and indications are his agent, Scott Boras, is looking for a deal comparable to the ones the Reds gave Joey Votto (10 years, $225 million) or the one the Angels gave Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million).
Or he might even go after the jackpot, a deal topping the one A-Rod squeezed out of the Yankees after opting out of his original contract in 2007: 10 years for $275 million plus $30 million in performance bonuses.
But the problem is that deal is now widely considered the worst contract in the history of professional sports. Not only did the Yankees bid against themselves -- there is no evidence any other team was even close to offering the kind of money or years they gave A-Rod -- but it is that deal, among others, that hamstrung the ability of general manager Brian Cashman to improve his aging roster this winter and will continue to hamper him, assuming owner Hal Steinbrenner goes forward with his plan to cut payroll to $189 million next year.
What the Yankees got for their $275 million was a World Championship in 2009, followed by three seasons of increasingly diminished production by a player clearly in deep decline, plagued by injuries and haunted by continued allegations of PED use.
And that's not even the bad news, which is that the contract still has five more seasons to run with no discernible escape hatch for the Yankees.
The Yankees didn't just get burned by that contract, they got napalmed.
It's conceivable that the bitter taste of that contract will contaminate every deal the Yankees do from now on, including Cano's.
No doubt that is why the Yankees extended a rarely offered invitation to talk contract extension with Boras this winter -- because they are probably, and understandably, reluctant to enter into another crippling entanglement even with a player of Cano's ability and upside.
In the Yankees' recent history with long-term, big-bucks contracts, only one has truly worked out to their advantage.
That would be the 10-year, $189 million deal negotiated by George Steinbrenner with Derek Jeter, who turned out to have been worth every penny.
And just looking at the Pujols and Votto deals doesn't add much comfort; Pujols needed more than a month to hit his first home run after signing the deal, and he put up the worst numbers of his career. He will be 43 when the contract runs out. And Votto missed nearly two months of the season with an injury and didn't hit a single home run after he came back.
In some respects, it is the nature of playing the free-agent game. In most cases, the players are either entering their primes or just past them, and in just about all cases are being paid for past performance, not future accomplishment.
And almost always, the contract outlives the player's usefulness.
Robinson Cano is a great hitter and one of the smoothest-fielding second basemen I have ever seen. His numbers the past four seasons have been outstanding -- since 2009, his average season has been 29 HRs, 101 RBIs and a .316 BA -- and many in the Yankees organization think he can be even better than that.
With A-Rod gone for most of the season, Cano is being counted on to provide the punch in the middle of the order, probably as the cleanup hitter. He is the player the Yankees would like to build around, for this season and for the future.
But when it comes time to sit down with Boras -- and this time they will most assuredly not be bidding against themselves, because at the very least the Los Angeles Dodgers will be major players for Cano's services -- the Yankees might want to dig out A-Rod's contract and have another look at it if they haven't memorized all the gory details already.
When they do, they might decide the best way to proceed is with maybe a five-year offer at a higher yearly salary, with player options after each of the past three seasons, to at least provide both sides with a safety net.
That way, the Yankees are obligated only until Cano turns 35 and Cano still has the opportunity to capitalize in the event he has the kind of MVP-caliber season everyone still thinks he is capable of.
That might not be enough to satisfy Boras and Cano, and it might turn out, as it often does with Boras' clients, that Cano will go to the highest bidder, be it by a year or by a dollar.
But in the long run, it might turn out that losing Robinson Cano to the Curse of A-Rod saves the Yankees a lot more than keeping him would have cost.