McClendon knows that good players make a manager better in a hurry, and Cano -- the jewel of this offseason's free-agent market who is expected to be introduced by the Mariners in Seattle on Thursday after completing his physical -- is one of the premier talents in the Major Leagues.
"We wanted to be able to go out and make -- I don't know if a statement is the right word -- but obviously get better from an offensive standpoint," McClendon said in his media session at the Walt Disney Swan & Dolphin Resort at baseball's Winter Meetings on Tuesday. "When the opportunity came along, I would say we got better. And I got smarter really quick."
After managing the Pirates for five years in the midst of their struggles from 2001-05, McClendon mentioned several times Tuesday that talent is the separator and he's eager for the Mariners to add more pieces after committing $240 million on a 10-year deal to Cano.
"You can have all the managerial skills in the world, if you don't have talent, it really doesn't make a difference," McClendon said. "The players make the manager, the manager doesn't make the player. I can obviously complement them and try to bring the best out of them. But Chuck Tanner told me a long time ago: Donkeys don't win the Kentucky Derby, thoroughbreds do. You've got to have thoroughbreds out there."
Though the Mariners still haven't officially announced Cano's signing and won't until his physical exam and contract are all finialized, McClendon said the five-time All-Star second baseman told him he's "extremely happy to be a Mariner."
Not as happy are the Yankees, who aren't used to getting outbid by opposing clubs for their own top players.
"I didn't want to let Robbie go," Yankees GM Brian Cashman told reporters Tuesday. "We gave him our best bullet, the $175 [million] for seven [years]. And someone took him from us for a lot more."
Why didn't the Yankees increase the length of their offer?
"Just the comfort level," Cashman said. "That's all. Everybody can see that he's a great player. Properly assessing value is always difficult, as we see on a yearly basis. Two teams can be fighting over the same player and come out with rather different offers for the same player. That's obviously what happened here.
"And who knows if there was anybody in between and all that stuff? Seattle sees the same thing as we do. There's no hidden-ball tricks here. You've got one of the tremendous players in the game today. He plays hard and he plays all the time and he produces. It just comes down to if the numbers are right. He had 240 million reasons why he should go to Seattle, and if I was him, I would have done the same thing."
There are questions, of course. One being how Cano will handle being the big star with a $240 million reputation after sharing the stage with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the like with the Yankees.
McClendon isn't worried about that one.
"My conversation with Robbie is I wanted him to be Robbie," McClendon said. "Robbie is pretty damn good. He doesn't have to be more than that. I can tell you this. When we went in to play the Yankees, the guy that we were most concerned about was Robinson Cano. So I don't know about star power, but I do know about player power, and he was the best on that team."
Nor is McClendon concerned about whether Cano develops into a leader in the young Mariners' clubhouse.
"I hope he leads on the field," he said. "I'll do the cheerleading and leading in the clubhouse. But I want guys on the field that can hit three run homers. Drive in a run from second base with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning. Those to me are the guys that lead by example on the field. I don't need guys to lead in the clubhouse. I'll do that. I need the guys to do it on the field."
And Cashman acknowledges the Mariners got a good one.
"They got a great player," said Cashman. "We know it more than anybody. We had Robbie Cano. He's as good as they come. He was on a Hall of Fame path with us, and hopefully for them he'll continue that Hall of Fame path because that's what he was for us. He was just a remarkable player."