The best free agent in baseball this winter is neither a first baseman nor a starting pitcher. That’s becoming a rare phenomenon. Robinson Cano, heretofore a New York Yankee, and the best second baseman in baseball right now, hits the market at a time when guys like him simply aren’t supposed to be available.

He’s every bit the player Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, Matt Kemp and Joe Mauer are. He might be better than any of them, assuming one counts health as a skill among position players. Because of other commitments and a rather myopic organizational policy, though, the Yankees have let their prized killer whale reach open water, and now, they have to go out there with the same nets everyone else will use to try to ensnare him. There’s a peculiarly pervasive notion that the Yankees’ familiarity with Cano will help them bring him back without much trouble. I don’t see it that way.

The last two players of roughly Cano’s caliber to reach free agency while playing one of the three infield positions at which defense is a relevant concern were Jose Reyes, after the 2011 season, and Adrian Before, after 2010. Each got roughly $100 million on multi-year deals, but neither is a very good starting point for a Cano valuation.

Reyes had won the batting title in his walk year, but health was a fairly major question mark with him. There was also a sense that his skill set would age poorly, although those fears were largely misplaced: Reyes is a much better overall hitter than many people believe. He was widely considered a dynamic talent, but a risky investment. He was also 29 when his six-year, $106-million contract began.

Beltre, who hit the market for the second winter in a row after rehabilitating his value and his image with a solid season in Boston, was also a (more minor) health risk, and carried significant baggage associated with the fruitless five years he had spent in Seattle after his first foray into free agency. It wasn’t fair or warranted, but Beltre had a reputation for selfishness and reticence to accept the spotlight. He got $96 million on a six-year deal from the Rangers, but even that deal contains a poison pill, a clause that would allow Texas to void his final season if he falls short of 600 plate appearances in 2015. Beltre played the first season of that deal at 32.

Cano isn’t in either of the situations described above. Cano has played 159, 160 or 161 games in each of the last seven seasons. He’s had exactly one poor season as a big leaguer, and that was in 2008. He’s 31, so not as old as Beltre, though not as young as Reyes. He has an unfair reputation for laziness, or more precisely, lacking urgency on the field, and had a very poor 2012 postseason, but is otherwise without baggage.

Essentially, he’s a durable Beltre or Reyes. That’s wildly valuable. If the Yankees do manage to hang onto him, it won’t be for anything close to what those two got. It should be for a bit more than those two combined.

I ran some numbers, and were I any team other than the Red Sox, Cardinals or Rangers, I would offer Cano an eight-year, $204-million contract, with an option for a ninth year at $20 million, and a $10-million buyout. The guaranteed money ($214 million) would exactly match Prince Fielder’s contract with the Tigers, although that would set Cano free to make more money one year sooner than Fielder. All told, it would be a slightly richer deal than Fielder’s, which is about right. Fielder shares Cano’s remarkable durability, and although Cano gets an edge for his previous level of competition and non-batting value, Fielder was two years younger when he signed his deal than Cano will be when he signs his.

There’s not much point in spending a ton of time trying to precisely project Robinson Cano. His career stats are too steady, too solid to yield any interesting upside or downside. (For instance, in the last five seasons, he has hit between .302 and .320, notched between 41 and 48 doubles and homered between 25 and 33 times each year.) His historically comparable hitters, per Baseball-Reference, include one player who voluntarily cut his career short for off-field reasons (Ryne Sandberg) and one whose career ended prematurely due to a back injury (Bobby Doerr) near the top of the list. Anyway, those comps help only if one wants to map the next one-to-three years of a player’s career, not the next seven-plus.

Cano is an excellent hitter, but not a terribly big guy. He relies on bat speed, but has a swing that should sustain that skill for a while. The only health red flag is that he’s been hibyby pitches, and subsequently reported contusions, four times on his left (top) hand in the last four years. That’s a minor injury risk if ever there was one. His low level of apparent exertion has contributed to his ability to stay healthy and on the field, and there’s no reason to suspect he will suddenly run into (for instance) close historical comp George Brett’s intermittent fragility.

It would also waste time to compare Cano to contemporaries who forsook free agency. The chief benefit of signing an extension prior to this stage is to minimize risk, to trade a potential windfall for smaller, certain one. It’s just not possible to put a reliable number on the value of the risk players like Brandon Phillips and Ian Kinsler traded for their security. That’s especially true for Cano, who doesn’t seem to have ever wanted very badly to trade that risk for quick cash. At this point, Cano won’t do more than play catch with his kid and jog lightly until his name is on a dotted line somewhere, so he has no more risk for teams pursuing him to leverage.

I foresee something even larger than the deal I prescribed for Cano, but he could well be worth each nickel. The Yankees are the richest team with an obvious need at second base, by far, but I reject the notion that that makes them an overwhelming favorite to win the Cano sweepstakes.

The following teams could and should be involved: Chicago (Cubs), Detroit, Los Angeles (Dodgers), Minnesota, New York (Mets), New York (Yankees), San Francisco, Toronto, Washington. Whether any of them have the money and motivation to stare down the Yankees, only time will tell. It would be shocking, though, if no one outside the Bronx made a push and at least got serious with the best free agent since Alex Rodriguez.

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