Thursday, December 4, 2008
In 2007’s off-season, deprecating costly, long-term contracts for pitchers, Cashman spurns a deal for Johan Santana, champions young, farm-grown starters, and entrusts 40% of his rotation to two rookies. In 2008’s, the GM offers CC Sabathia a 6-year contract commensurate to Santana’s, pursues two more 30-plus free-agent starters demanding 4-year deal besides, and announces that his two rookie prodigies, Hughes and Kennedy, now have to prove themselves in AAA.
Just this September, the GM can conclude an anemic lineup, down 180 runs scored from one year ago, bedevils the Yankees. By November, the GM can jettison two of his most productive hitters, Abreu and Giambi, and forswear Mark Teixeira, the one free-agent most equipped to compensate.
One April Cashman can risk his rotation to youth, inexperience, and innings caps because the offense is supposed to compensate. The next April, Cashman can risk his lineup to age, skill regression, and two 35-year old veterans rebounding from major injuries (Posada and Matsui) because the formidable high-priced, re-engineered rotation he envisions supposedly will ensure success.
One minute the Yankees GM is lavishing $6 million more dollars and committing two more years to Damaso Marte, a middle-reliever, a notoriously unreliable commodity. The next minute the Yankees GM won’t offer arbitration to one of his most consistent, durable, and productive hitters in Bobby Abreu because he fears having to pay him over one year $6 million more dollars than he’s worth. Yet the contradictions continue. For he’s, at once, binding the organization to rebuilding its farm system all the while, in forsaking compensatory draft picks, squandering his most fertile opportunity for doing so.
Is there a method to Cashman’s madness, a key to the apparent contradiction, a long-range plan? Not one, evidently, to which he’s either willing or seemingly able to adhere. To the contrary, the impression the Yankees Front-Office creates is of frantic, ad hoc, remedial reaction. Each off-season the Front-Office adopts a new recipe but without first learning the lesson the prior year’s failure exposed. A recipe best described as follows: Trial. Error. Abandonment…. Reaction. Overcompensation. Failure…. Rinse and Repeat.
2008 FOLLIES REVISITED: YOUNG PITCHING
Of course, consistency in the face of error constitutes its own kind of madness. And to Cashman’s credit, he’s currently trying to rectify the critical error in judgment he made last year by forgoing Santana and exposing 40% of his rotation to the inconsistency, innings caps, and injury-risks of rookie starters—an error that derailed the Yankees 2008 season.
Last year, to recall, Cashman calculated that the team’s prolific lineup would hedge against a rotation anchored by two rookies under 23. A hypothesis more sound in theory than practice. The Twins, after all, followed this very formula. In ’08, they finished 3rd in the AL in Runs Scored and their rotation of Blackburn, Slowey, and Perkins, all in their first full season, accounted for over 50% of the team’s starts. And the team found itself in September playing a one game playoff for the division title.
However, Minnesota isn’t New York. The Twins pitchers benefited from low expectations. In contrast, the clamor in the Bronx to demote Hughes started in April, even before he disclosed the rib injury. And the Scranton bus arrived for Kennedy soon thereafter. Not without cause, however. By May 1st, in the 12 games Hughes and Kennedy had started, they’d combined for a 9.16 ERA in 46 innings, and the Yankees went 2-10. The Yankees were 12-5 otherwise in April, and 14-15 in total. And from this middling performance, over the easy part of their schedule, the team never recovered.
THE OFF-SEASON: THE ERROR OF OVERCOMPENSATION
Last year’s error, however, has instigated this off-season’s ill-considered knee-jerk reflex. Overcompensating for one deficiency now risks incurring its inverse. A rotation constituted of youth, inexperience, and fragility in 2008 will have wrought in 2009 a lineup composed of diminished power, infirm veterans, and fading stars.
The plan for 2009, reportedly, contemplates as follows. Cashman hopes to leverage $80 million dollars in expiring contracts by signing two among Sabathia, Burnett, and Lowe, and re-signing Pettitte at a lower salary. If successful, his rotation would consist of Wang, Pettitte, two free agents, and Joba, the 5th starter, confined to approximately 130 innings. As such, Scranton would provide in Hughes, Aceves, and Kennedy a ready stable of arms to bolster the Bronx rotation when fatigue, injuries, or innings limits exact their toll, as they invariably will, and require reinforcements.
All well and good, except for the caveat. Signing two of Sabathia, Burnett, and Lowe, according to Cashman, would preclude a third for Teixeira. And with the departure of Abreu now all but certain, the Yankees need Teixeira as badly as they do Sabathia.
For as Cashman himself conceded just two months ago, the lineup’s regression in Runs Scored, On-Base Percentage, and RISP average in 2008 accounted as much for the Yankees’ finishing in 3rd place as did their injury-decimated rotation. But thus far rather than remedying the problem, Cashman has seen fit to exacerbate it.
He’s disposed of two of his most productive and patient hitters. Giambi and Abreu ranked 2nd and 3rd in OPS+ at 128 and 120, respectively, and led the team in pitches per plate appearance at 4.3. Meanwhile, the acquisition of Nick Swisher mitigates their loss but hardly compensates for it. For all Swisher’s youth, proficiency in drawing walks and pitches per plate, his career OPS+ is only 112. And in the 3 of his 5 major league season, his OPS+ didn’t exceed 101; that is, the league average.
THE MIRROR IMAGE FALLACY: 2009’s INADEQUATE LINEUP
For some reason, Cashman imagines that without Abreu, Giambi, or hitter of Teixeira’s caliber, his lineup nonetheless will be sufficiently formidable to contend in the AL East. His projection ostensibly depends on (i) Matsui and Posada fully recuperating and recapturing their 2007 seasons; (ii) Cano, A-Rod, and Swisher, all rebounding from sub-par 2008s; (iii) Damon and Nady reproducing their prolific 2008 stats and not reverting to their mediocre 2007 numbers; and finally, (iv) his revamped pitching rotation affecting a dramatic improvement over its last two incarnations in performance and stability.
The irony is that the GM’s plan for 2009 rests on assumptions no less tenuous or speculative than his plan for 2008. Actually, the associated risks of depending on Hughes and Kennedy’s in 2008 mirror the associated risks of relying on Posada and Matsui in 2009. The one is the converse of the other. The youth, inexperience, and fragility of Hughes and Kennedy made their performances as impossible to predict as age, injury, and skill regression now cloud the futures of Posada’s and Matsui’s.
Posada, after all, will be a 38-year-old catcher in August, a position notorious for the precipitous fall in productivity its players undergo as they age. (Mike Piazza, recall, didn’t last beyond the age of 38.) More problematic still, Posada is recuperating from a torn labrum, about as dire an injury to catchers’ and pitchers’ career as exists in the age of modern medicine. To compound the unknown, this is the second time in Posada’s career has had surgery for the injury. How can the Yankees expect Posada, at 38, and recovering from injury no less, to equal his career averages, let alone reprise the unprecedentedly productive season he had in 2007?
Expecting Matsui to reproduce his 123 OPS+ suffers from the same willfully blind optimism. Matsui is no youngster either. He turns 35 in March, and among the Yankees’ cohort of over-33 players, Matsui has aged least gracefully. Perhaps, his consecutive game streak in Japan has worn him down. Whatever the reason, the chronically arthritic knees he suffers from has robbed him of mobility, precipitated two separate operations on them last year, and subjects him to an ongoing risk of swelling. (His two operations last year only addressed its effect; the arthritis itself is incurable.) Matsui was a notorious streaky hitter to begin with. It’s doubtful he can go an entire season without the pain or swelling impairing his swing.
Now, Cashman, it’s true, can project greater productivity from A-Rod and Cano in 2009. But that’s only half the picture. The other half assumes what they add, Damon, Nady and perhaps, even Jeter won’t subtract by contributing less than last year. Damon’s OPS+ was 118 last year. His career average is 103; and in 2007, it was 97. The Yankees should expect a regression accordingly. Same applies to Nady, whose OPS + was 128 last year (105 with the Yankees), 107 in 2007, and 108 for his career.
As for Jeter, his OPS+ in 2008 dropped 18 points below his career average, 120 (career), 102 (2008). But then again, how much offensive improvement can the Yankees expect from a 35 year old short-stop?
Then too, as their roster is currently constituted, the Yankees don’t have a genuine three hitter. The three-hole is a critical position in any lineup, but especially in the Yankees’ because the player precedes A-Rod, a guess hitter, who depends on disciplined hitters like Abreu and Teixeira in front of him to work counts and to expose a pitcher’s full repertoire.
TREADING WATER IN THE AL EAST
Of course, Cashman’s new model stresses pitching and defense. Never mind that the above lineup only upgrades his outfield’s defense and Posada’s return may diminish it behind the plate. Never mind because signing two premiere starters, Cashman contends, supposedly will buy in runs allowed what he sacrifices in runs scored.
Once again, though, the Yankee GM’s model excludes too many unseemly details that qualify it. First it scants the competition. In past off-seasons, merely keeping pace with the Red Sox was enough because the Yankees still could make the playoffs finishing behind them. The emergence of the Rays, however, means that the Yankees, by keeping pace, fall behind. It isn’t merely six wins—the six wins separating Boston and the Bronx last year-- the Yankees have to gain. It is six wins over and above their constantly improving competition.
The addition of David Price to the Rays rotation, even under innings caps, and a left-handed bat either to DH—possibly, Jason Giambi-- or to play right-field will only further strengthen a team that was 8-wins better than the Yankees last year. And the Red Sox will do likewise by signing Mark Teixeira and trading Lowell, as they hope, and/or by fortifying their bullpen, with Ramon Ramirez’s acquisition and/or that of another free-agent reliever.
Unfortunately, the current Yankees’ lineup for 2009, listed below, examined through the prism of age and injury, pales before any the team has fielded in recent memory. Compare it, by contrast, to their two AL East rivals’ projected lineups.
To excel the Rays and Sox, the Yankees need to improve in every facet then, not just their starting pitching. In fact improving the pitching while neglecting the offense—a lineup that now has to contend with either Gardner or Melky in CF-- offers a prescription less for surpassing the Rays and Red Sox than for emulating the Blue Jays or for worse, disaster.
Recall: the Blue Jays finished 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the entire AL the last two seasons in Runs Allowed, 610 in 2008, 699 in 2007. However, they won 83 games in ’07 and 86 games in ’08, largely because of a deficient lineup. They scored 753 in ’07 (10th in the AL) and 714 in ’08 (11th in the AL). Below, I list the Yankees totals, for comparison, and their league rank.
The table illustrates, first of all, that the Yankees sustained the greatest change either team experienced over the last two seasons in both aggregate numbers and rank, and their lineup accounted for it, not their pitching staff.
Secondly, the Jays’ failure to improve by more than 3 wins from ’07 to ’08 despite yielding 90 less runs illustrates the peril of neglecting your offense. The Jays’ static lineup, ranking about the same over the two seasons, vitiated whatever comparative advantage in the AL East their pitching gained them.
Do the Yankees really want to emulate the Jays in this regard? That’s the risk they run by letting their lineup founder, however dramatically they augment their pitching staff.
Then, too, would signing Sabathia and Burnett automatically improve the rotation as much as we’d like to believe? Don't forget, replacing Mussina's season last year won't be easy. Wang can only hope to duplicate Mussina’s 2008. Innings caps, moreover, will again confine Joba to about 130 innings. And, finally, consider, too, which incarnation of Andy Pettite, if he returns, would the Yankees receive in 2009, the 2007 or the 2008 version. All of which reinforces why the Yankees need to improve their offense, along with their pitching. Bolstering the latter alone is fraught with too much risk, and in and of itself is unlikely to gain them another 6-7 wins.
Cashman's recent intimation that they can't afford to do both-- in the year they open a Stadium recent figures estimate will garner them, at minimun, an additional $200 million in revenue-- is risible. Actually, with $80 million dollars in contracts expiring, were the team to sign Sabathia ($25 million) and Teixeira ($21 million) and re-sign Pettitte at ($10-12) the total still wouldn't consume the windfall. What's more, after 2009, Damon’s, Matsui’s, and Nady’s contracts, totaling another $35 million, expire as well.
Finally, if the Yankees are committed to re-allocating some portion of that $80 million anyway, isn’t a $21 million a year investment in a 28-year-old first baseman a sounder investment than $15 or $16 million for a fragile 32-year old Burnett or an aging 36-year-old Lowe?
All of which begs the question: in Brian Cashman, do the Yankees have a first-rate intelligence and a second-rate General Manager.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
So for all us Yankee fans who recently watched the Red Sox and Rays, fortified by seemingly endless reserves of young talent, march through the playoffs and have wallowed in resentment, despair, and self-pity ever since-- well, have faith, and remember Scarlett O'Hara's credo. For tomorrow is indeed another day. This time, quite literally.
For tomorrow the Yankees can begin to offer contracts to free agents. Tomorrow, the Yankees can begin to leverage their financial might to compensate for a farm system, that while beginning to show the first signs of growth after a decade of neglect and plunder, will not yield the likes of a Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youklis, or Jacoby Ellsbury; Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, or BJ Upton for years to come.
No, it won't earn the Yankees many admirers in the industry or among the games' self-appointed moral guardians in the media. Before the Steinbrenners have spent so much as a penny, in fact, baseball's Reds have already launched their annual jeremiad about the gluttunous Yankee payroll and have accused the Bronx robber barons of cornering the market and destroying baseball's competitive integrity. The irony is how many of these same media hacks would impose on the Yankees a financial tax they themselves would bridle at paying. The New York Daily News, for example, recently quoted one of the most consistently strident and dogmatic advocates for a salary cap in baseball, The Million Dollar Mad Dog, Christopher Russo, as follows, "I voted for McCain. I think there is an element of people sitting on their fannies. 'Lets go tax the wealthy up and down to make sure the guy on Main Street can sleep until 10 o'clock in the morning.' That kind of thing... steered me to McCain." Let them all eat Yankee Franks, says the Mad Dog.
The truth is that in the NBA and NFL, salary caps, actually, enshrines an aritocracy of talent, crowning dynasties like the Spurs and Patriots and perpetuating losing franchises by preventing them from spending enough money to re-arm. This is why NFL and NBA teams, to improve, depend so heavily on their drafts.
Baseball, in contrast, more readily approximates the liberal democratic ideal. In many ways, in fact, it mirrors the U.S.'s own system of liberal welfare state capitalism. No law prohibits Microsoft, for example, from mustering its $21 billion in cash reserves to throttle and ravage would-be competitors. They just have to pay taxes. So too with the Yankees.
In 2005, Forbes reported that the Yankees earned $354 million in revenue, $77 million of which baseball exacted and redistributed to 16 small-market teams through revenue-sharing, another $34 million of which the Yankees paid in luxury taxes. (Steinbrenner's Tax Shelter, Forbes, 05/08/06) Together, the two levies constitute the equivalent of a 31% tax, about as high the 35% rate both Microsoft and Chris Russo probably paid last year.
Accordingly, the Yankees will have no reason to apologize for if in the forthcoming weeks they spend prodigious sums of money and sign multiple players from among, perhaps, the most talented free-agent class in baseball. After all, the Red Sox responded likewise after failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2006, going on a $210 million off-season spending spree that netted them Dice-K, J.D. Drew, and Julio Lugo. What's more, with the 2008 season's end, $80+ million in Yankees player contracts have expired which they now can re-allocate to address their most pressing needs. Onward, Cash.
WHOM TO SIGN AND WHY
PRIORITY #1: The Ace
That the Yankees foremost priority should be to marshal every last resource to sign CC Sabathia strikes me as so self-evident it's not worth arguing. Rare is it for a team to rectify the mistake they made one year the next.
The 2008 season, as such, could best be called Cashman's Folly. For it demonstrated the hubris of constructing a rotation in the New York crucible that hinges so greatly on the performance of rookie pitchers confined by innings caps. It's one thing to cultivate starting pitchers and to integrate them slowly into the rotation. Quite another, to bear the risk of injury and inconsistency that comes with assigning 40% of the rotation to two untested, under-25 pitcher with innings limitations to boot and still to expect the team to thrive and qualify for post-season. The risk only intensifies, in fact, when two 35+ starters comprise another 40%.
Apart then from the quality start a pitcher like Sabathia can offer every fifth day, he, in anchoring the rotation and providing 200+ innings, also alleviates the pressure on the starters who follow him. He would allow the Yankees, then, to exercise more patience with, and thereby assist in, the ongoing development of Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Alfredo Aceves, or whomever else earns a Bronx audition in 2009.
Priority #2: The Three Hole
According to SI's John Heyman and other reporters privy to the Yankees thinking, the front-office's second priority is to sign one of the other two or three other premiere free-agent pitchers-- A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, or perhaps, Ben Sheets. With this decision, I admantly disagree.
Let's begin by assuming the Yankees sign Sabathia (if they cannot, then in this eventuality, I can't argue with signing Burnett or Lowe or both). Andy Pettite already has indicated he wishes to return and would accept a one-year deal to do so. Should the Yankees oblige Pettitte, then, they'd begin with a rotation of Sabathia, Wang, and Pettitte. I'll address the 4th and 5th spots below in Priority #3.
To my mind, the Yankees' lineup last year was almost as deficient as their starting rotation, if not more so. They scored 179 less runs than in 2007. Their on-base average declined from .366 to .344; their slugging percentage dropped from .463 to .427; their batting average with runners in scoring position fell from .293 to .261.
Nonetheless, the Yankees would compound the regression the lineup already has shown. That is, the Front-Office intends not to re-sign their 3rd and 5th hitters, Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi, two of their lineup's most proficient hitters last year in two of the three statistical groups above which accrued a shortfall from the previous year -- on-base percentage and slugging. Only Alex Rodriguez exceeded Abreu and Giambi in OPS (on-base + slugging percentage). Giambi and Abreu also led the team in the number of pitches they saw per plate appearance, each with 4.3 P/PA.
Yes, Posada and Matsui may return next year, but relying on either player to recuperate fully at their advanced age, to reproduce their 2007 totals, and to stay healthy for the season's duration is as presumptuous and reckless as Cashman's decision last off-season to entrust 40% of the rotation to rookies. Perhaps, the Yankees can assume Posada and/or Matsui could fill the five hole and compensate for Giambi's loss. Neither however is a genuine 3 hole hitter even when fully realizing his potential.
The only two players available via free-agency who promise the Yankees sufficient production as three hitters in (i) their ability to get on base, (ii) work counts, and (iii) amass extra-base hits are Mark Teixiera, Manny Ramirez or Abreu himself. (It is impossible to project how Adam Dunn-- a career NL player, with a low average and high strike out totals and a questionable passion for the game-- would perform in New York. But each caveat presents its own risk.)
Ramirez is limited to LF or DH and will command a $100 million contract besides. He's the least desirable option as such. Teixiera and Abreu, to be sure, present risks as well. Teixiera is a younger than Abreu, a better hitter and fielder, but nonetheless will commit the Yankees to at least a seven year obligation, if not more. Abreu, on the other hand, only desires a 3-year contract and might even acquiesce to two years with a vesting option, if the Yankees offer it because he wants to return to New York. I concede his speed has diminished and he's lost some range in RF but he's not nearly as much a defensive liability as his critics insist. Nor for that matter does his anointed succesor, Xavier Nady, represent a dramatic improvement.
Re-signing Abreu has the added virtue of enabling the Yankees to play Nady at 1B or to trade him for first-baseman while Nady still has value. (Nady is a Boras client and will accompany Damon and Matsui on the free-agent market at next season' conclusion.) Alternatively, after re-signing Abreu, they Yankees could trade Matsui, freeing the DH position for Damon, Abreu, Nady, and Posada to rotate through, and could audition Juan Miranda at 1B or perhaps even sign Giambi for one-year.
Either way, with Brett Gardner expected to play CF in 2009, Jorge Posada returning from labrum surgery, Matsui suffering from chronically arthritic knees, Derek Jeter reverting to his free-swinging ways and his GDP numbers increasing annually, and A-Rod always prone to press, the Yankees need a sure-fire, prolific bat in the three hole almost as much as they do Sabathia. Only two free agents fit the bill, Teixiera and Abreu. The Yankees would err greatly in not signing one or the other.
Priority #3: The Innings-Eater
Another reason why a 3-hole hitter should take precedence to a second starter is cost efficiency. Mark Teixiera is a young elite talent and one of the best players in baseball at his position, and probably will remain so for the lion share of his contact. Abreu, similarly, joins Pujols and A-Rod as one of only three players in the game to amass 6 consecutive seasons of 100 RBI's. He also happens to be one of the game's most durable players as well, playing 150 games or more every year since he became a starter in 1998. Plate discipline, his great asset, what's more, is one of the more age-resistant player skills. The Yankees, accordingly, can expect to receive production roughly commensurate to their outlay by signing either.
The same cannot be said of AJ Burnett certainly, and perhaps not of Derek Lowe either. Burnett lives on the disabled list, having thrown 200 innings or more in only 3 of the last 7 seasons. (No Maas.org, cleverly, refers to him as the baseball market's equivalent to a sub-prime mortgage.) Lowe, on the other hand, while more durable, will turn 36 next year, wants a 3-4 year contract at $15+ million, despite not qualifying as one of the best pitchers in the game, and finally, hasn't pitched in the AL since 2004.
The Yankees would profit more accordingly from signing one or more less prestigious, second or third-tier pitchers who would cost them less and necessitate a shorter contractual commitment, but upon whom they can rely alone, or in tandem, to pitch 200 innings: John Garland, Paul Byrd, Randy Wolf, Mike Mussina (if for a year, two at most) or perhaps, some combination of one-year contracts for Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, and Eric Milton.
The Yankees rotation would then consist of Sabathia, Wang, Pettite, Innings-Eater, and Joba. Then as injuries mount and innings caps are reached, the organization could integrate Hughes, Aceves, Kennedy, Coke, Brackman, etc., as their performances and health warrant.
What the Yankees actually do is anybody's guess. The marketplace unfolds according to a logic of its own that can upend even the best laid plans. Count on it, for this reason, to dictate one or more choices the Front-Office otherwise wouldn't make.
Still, should the Yankees somehow achieve a reasonable facsimile of the three priorities above, I'm confidence they'll resume their role as perennial contender in the AL East.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Some quality-- his life story, his triumphs and adversity, her talent or her beauty, the intimates she recalls and corrects perhaps-- seduces us and we fall in love with the idealized image we've projected out of our own unfullfilled need.
A bond then forms every bit as fast and deep and enduring as those we enjoy with friends, family, and loved one. Indeed, sometimes a purer and more potent bond because it remains untainted by the human failings that mark all our relationships with conscious or unconscious conflict and ambivalence.
I can't recall when I adopted Joe Torre for this role, or perhaps, more accurately, when I imagined Joe Torre adopted me for mine. I only know that when the Yankees scapegoated and then disposed of him in such a spiteful, petty, and undignified fashion last year, I felt the fury and indignation my own father would have aroused had the Yankees humiliated him, instead of a man I'd never met and never knew. (See my blog post, "The Golden Age of Joe," October 9, 2007)
A further irony is that Joe Torre probably recovered more quickly than I did. He'd secured a job in LA within the month. It took much longer for my anger to subside. But it did. As the year passed and Joe Torre receded from my TV screen and a new season began, I barely thought about him. Sure, on occasion, as the 2008 Yankees foundered and their new manager made a colossal ass of himself by acting the role of autocratic martinet, some momentary wave of nostaglic yearning would overcome me. I missed the other Joe on those occasions.
Yet through most of 2008, my plan to adopt the Dodgers as my surrogate team never really unfolded. Old allegiances die hard. They also are slow to be born. Sure I checked their place in the standings every once in a while. But the 3-hr time difference coupled with the new league inhibited much more than that. My heart wasn't into it. The vagaries of the Yankees' fate left no room for rival lovers.
Now that Joe Torre has returned to his familiar place in the post-season and I've seen more of him, I'm grateful to him because it has stirred some of the old fondness. There was the comforting Joe I watched after every traumatic loss, every bit as possessed of the old reliable power to console me.
Sure, I'm rooting for the Dodgers to succeed, if only to see Joe revel in a little malicious pleasure and retrospective vindication at Cashman, the Steinbrenners', and Randy Levine's expense. I hope to hell the press reports are accurate and it pains them to see Torre in the NLCS. That it should bother them only dramatizes just how small they really seem.
But that rooting interest only takes me so far. For the passion the Yankees summon, as it turns out, there is no substitute, however abject their front-office. Seeing the Dodgers win, turns out to be little more satisfying the seeing the Red Sox lose. It's a transitory pleasure, but hardly a satisfying one. In the end, unless, it's the Yankees, I'm just not invested, Joe or no.
And Torre himself now begets far more the detached fondness and residual sentiment I might feel for an ex-wife or girlfriend than a filial love or allegiance. Which of course has led me to wonder what it was about Joe Torre exactly that had inspired my devotion in the first place.
I think I now understand it. But to explain, if you'll forgive the digression, I only can relate a bit of my own story.
Dissolve 2008. Cue "Take a Chance on Me" by Abba. Cut to the North Edison Little League Field, a brilliant Spring afternoon in Central Jersey. The camera fixes on a dejected nine-year-old boy, sitting at the far end of the dugout, by himself sulking. He slides a pack of Pop Rocks from his back pocket, but he tosses them to the ground, inconsolable. After striking out for the twentieth time that season, he actually considers entertaining his teammates' fondest wishes and quitting.
However passionate my love for baseball as a kid, few things vexed me more than the gap between the player I was and the player I so desperately wanted to be. (In retrospect, it was probably through the game that I first attained the bitter wisdom that much as Americans love to pretend otherwise, you cannot be whatever you want to be.) So after four years of little league and shedding, for as long, copious tears of frustration, I hung up my cleats and called it a career.
Still, I enjoyed one season of near glory.
It wasn't the first season I allude to above; that one was disastrous. As an August baby, I didn't reach the age minimum until one year after most of my classmates. By third grade, they were entering their second year in the Piedmont League, I, my first. Although, for some reason, a friend of mine's father drafted me for his team, the Reds, notwithstanding. Perhaps, a team of nice, obedient Jewish boys he could manage mattered more to him than winning.
Mr. Bosco, let's call him, was a patient and forbearing manager, but he quickly discerned that I wasn't going to be much help to him either at the plate or in the field. I don't know what terrified me more, striking out or getting struck. Either way, I did a lot of both. Mr Bosco, as a consequence, batted me 14th or 15th on a team of 16 players, in accordance with the league rule that every team member had to bat. And in the few games, he had to cast an extra for deep, deep, deep right-field, I watched the game from a spot in outfield 250 ft. removed from home plate and where no ball, I suspect, ever landed.
At season one's end, my batting statistical line read something like this, .000/.100/.000. That is, I didn't earn a hit all season, and the few times I made it to 1st base was because the pitcher walked me or hit me with the ball. With the cruel blunt candor of nine-year-olds, my teammates delivered their estimation of my talent. "You suck," they told me often that season. And I believed them. Without a hit to my name, how could I imagine otherwise?
Only I didn't suck, not entirely anyway. I just didn't know it yet.
THE JOE I KNOW
During the off-season that year, I still believed anything was possible and I was determined to improve. Only I didn't now where to begin.
Most kids of course turn to their father. But my father, in this case, didn't have the resources to help much, however greatly he tried. He grew up poor in Manhattan's Lower East Side housing projects where kids aren't exactly encouraged to play baseball. And while he could probably identify the parts of a car engine with his eyes closed, to this day, he'd probably be hard-pressed to explain a balk or the infield fly-rule. He rooted for the Yankees, sure, but he never had the luxury of thinking all that much about the game, still less had anyone guided him on how to master it.
Fortunately, a genuine, real live, accomplished athlete existed among my parent's friends. Let's call him Joe Santos. Imagine a more introverted, more conciliatory Mario Cuomo. A star athlete in baseball and basketball in high-school, Joe might have played professional, low-A baseball one day. But his parents, like my father's, were immigrants and they envisioned a more practical and financial secure future for their son. So Joe filled prescriptions for a living and satisfied his love for the diamond, by teaching his sons the game and coaching little league in South Jersey.
That summer our families spent a few Saturdays together as they did every year. And after explaining my predicament to Santos, he took me out to the field and offered his sage instruction. He re-configured my batting stance, taught me how to plant the back foot and how to step with the front foot, how to take outside pitches to the opposite field and how to pull those inside. And for some inexplicable reason, perhaps sensing some untapped, unappreciated talent, he sent me to the mound to pitch to him.
"Do you know you have a natural curve?" he asked. Me? Me! A natural curve? "Yes," he said, "You're a natural pitcher. Next year tell your manager you can pitch." After which, he dispensed a veritable reservoir of tips on the art of pitching-- and of breathing.
And come next season, that's precisely what I told my next manager when asked my position. Pitcher, I said. The success followed from there. I swear, by season's end, I'd experienced the most dramatic improvement in North Edison Piedmont League history. I'd even registered my first official hit in the very first game-- a little blooper over Joey Gordon's head at 2b. And from that game on I never hit lower than 6th or 7th in the lineup and even hit 2nd and 3rd on a few occasions.
But my first taste of the exaltation athletic competition can bring the anointed came on the mound. I was a "natural" pitcher of sorts. I had two pitches in my repertoire-- a ball and a strike. I have no idea whether the ball curved on its own, but when I could throw strikes, only the Piedmont League's best hitters would tag me. When I was erratic, on the other hand, well...
Still, by season's end, I'd compiled a winning record and the manager chose me as an alternate to the Piedmont League's Eastern Division All-Star team. Alas, my brief baseball career peaked at 10. It was pretty much downhill from there.
Now, I'd like to tell you the adjustments Joe Santos made to my stance along with the pitching advice he imparted that summer account for the great transformation. However, I suspect, in truth, something more precious and less esoteric explains why I flourished that second year-- an explanation which, perhaps, brings us back to Mr. Torre.
Sure, I received an invaluable lesson in baseball mechanics. But Joe Santos taught me something more important. He taught me I didn't suck, after all. He put his arm on my shoulder and explained that great truth every baseball player, some day, discovers: that the very best in the game, fail more often than not. And he instilled in me, more importantly, the confidence that with every new at-bat and every forthcoming pitch, I had sufficient ability to overcome the last one.
In so many words the message rang, "It's a tough game and you WILL fail, but my arm will never leave your shoulder. My faith in you is boundless, unconditional and enduring."
In the superb film, "Searching For Bobby Fisher"-- adapted by Steven Zallian from the book Innocent Moves Fred Waitzkin wrote about his chess prodigy son, Joshua-- Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna) and his wife Bonnie Waitzkin (Joan Allen), in a climactic moment, clash about the costs competition has exacted on their son. Bonnie has always bridled at it. However, she's indulged her vicariously competitive husband. (For a living, Fred Waitzkin, as it happens, covers the New York Yankees for one of the local newspapers.)
Josh has just suffered through a devastating losing streak and his father has been riding him hard, and in their dramatic scene, Bonnie, worried about the continued consequences for her increasingly sullen and withdrawn son, explodes.
"He's not afraid of losing," she cries, "He's afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their father's love everytime they come up to the plate?" She asks him. "How many?"
"All of them," Fred shouts. All of them? All?
Look, I don't know if Joe Torre would ever qualify as the diamond's managerial equivalent of a chess prodigy. Lord know, his management of the bullpen left much to be desired in his years as Yankees manager, and as he was nostalgic enough to remind us the other night in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS.
But I do know what Derek Jeter has said about him ever since the Yankees and Torre parted ways. It has resonated with me ever since.
"Joe Torre was like a second father to me," Jeter said.
A second father, perhaps, whose love he never could squander; a second father whose unequivocal and infinite faith he could never lose. A second father to him, A second father to us.
How many Yankees grow up afraid of losing their second father's love?
For twelve years, none of them.
And for twelve years, through them, none of us.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Listening to Brian Cashman is rarely a particularly informative experience, still less a consoling one. Rarely does one talk so much and say so little. Indeed, at the task of a Chief Executive to inspire confidence in the organization he leads and his stewardship of it, the Yankees' GM has never excelled. Perhaps, the old Steinbrenner gag rule compels him to mince words. Perhaps, he fears candor and elaboration will jeopardize future transactions. Perhaps, he just lacks the glibness the 30-second sound byte requires.
Whatever the reason, Yankees fans, by now, have learned not to expect tedium from his semiannual press conferences and obliqueness from the sporadic interviews he grants on talk radio. I wonder whether Cashman realizes that the opacity encourages the very distortion of his record about which he now complains. Because he chooses to veil the front-office's inner workings in secrecy and darkness, fans construe what the few select columnists and reporters with access to the inner sanctum reveal as the gospel truth.
So while Brian Cashman has held the title of GM for over ten years now, we're really no closer now than when the Yankees promoted him to a definitive evaluation of his performance. Did he advocate the Mussina signing? What about Carl Pavano, Jared Wright, and John Lieber? Did he engineer the trades for Javier Vasquez and Kevin Brown? What about the decision that precipitated them, i.e., forfeiting the exclusive negotiating period with Andy Pettitte that led him in 2003 to sign with the Astros? Was Cashman the same guy dissuaded by Pettitte's injured elbow in 2003 but not four years later when he chose to re-sign him instead of acquiring Johan Santana?
Between 1998 and 2005, when he held the GM position in name alone, the Front-Office's decisions occurred behind an impenetrable curtain of faction and unaccountability.
THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS CONTRACT
Still, the veil of ignorance persists largely because Brian, since assuming the title's full powers, has chosen not to lift it. Actually, he and Girardi, together, have intensified the organization's penchant for secrecy. Only now Cashman bridles at its consequence. For ever since the Yankees announced the GM's return earlier this week, Cashman has used the occasion of his press conference and the talk radio tour that follows to vent. The press, he complains, has distorted his record. So does Brian take the occasion to enlighten them by acknowledging which egregious over the last decade he did not render but the press nonetheless has unfairly attributed to him? No, of course not.
Actually, the indignation Cashman has affected and the defiance he has expressed, given how the Yankees fared this season, has caused me to wince more than once at its flagrant temerity. Joe Torre loses in the ALDS three years in a row and he incurs the organization's wrath, threats of dismissal one year, a salary cut the next. For some reason, the Yankees want their manager to apologize for not winning a World Series since 2000 and to agree to performance incentives to spur him to do better.
And the man who served as GM during the identical period? Well not only is he rewarded, not only is he not the least bit contrite, he is outright defiant. Evidently, he think he has performed brilliantly. What chutzpah!
Appearing on Max Kellerman's program on October 2, 2008, Cashman lambasted the media for not "getting their story straight." He didn't traipse into the organization in 1998 and inherit the championship core Gene Michael and Bob Watson assembled, he admonishes. No, says Cashman, people forget he was the Assistant GM under Bob Watson and the Assistant Farm director before that.
Too bad, Brian doesn't seem to understand where this logic takes him. Because if he deserves credit for the farm system's great successes in drafting and cultivating the dynastic foundation that won four World Series in six years, then so too, he deserves blame for the woefully deficient system that in the eight following years failed to produce a single commensurate talent. One accounting follows from the other. You are either responsible for Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, Bernie, Mo AND Dave Parish, John Ford Griffin, Danny Walling, Jon Poterson and C.J Henry or for NEITHER. Which is it?
Still, listening to Brian insinuate besides that he was instrumental in the Yankees' trade of Roberto Kelly for Paul O'Neil recalled to mind Tom Harkin's famous retort about Bush I: that is, "President G.H.W. Bush was born on 3rd base and thinks he hit a triple."
Likewise was Brian Cashman responsible. When the physical strain of working for George sent Gene Michael and Bob Watson around the bases one time too many, they retired to the bench and the Yankees sent Brian Cashman in to pinch-run. Sure he ended up standing on 3rd base, but it ain't because he hit a triple.
I'd grant him far more credibility if he acknowledged his mistakes besides. After all, when was the last time the Yankees GM allowed that about a major decision concerning the Yankees' future, he erred? (Confessing this off-season in Theo Epstein's presence that perhaps he didn't get enough talent in return for Mike Lowell ten years ago hardly qualifies.) More importantly, does Cashman admits to the errors privately? His recent display of unapologetic arrogance would suggest not. Actually, his farcical defense of Carl Pavano this year-- and implicitly thereby his signing of him-- begs the question whether Cashman ever believes he's wrong.
One would think that the season after the Yankees missed the playoff for the first time in fifteen seasons -- even if injuries largely explain why-- and with the organization nonetheless planning to raise ticket prices to new unprecedented heights, that their foremost public official would try to assuage his angry and exasperated fan base. One would think the Yankees' fate this season would counsel remorse, some solace or assurance from the GM it's an aberration, a contrite mea culpa perhaps. Cashman however is totally unrepentant. You'd think he just won the World Series rather than a contract extension.
Most infuriating still, with every passing day, the Yankees' prospect for signing CC Sabathia seems to dim. With every passing day, the Rays and Red Sox, increasingly show the signs of having dynastic pitching staffs. With every passing day, the Yankees' outlook for 2009 appears no more promising than their 2008. With every passing day, it looks more and more like the front-office squandered a once in a decade opportunity last off-season to acquire an ace in his prime and without surrendering their premiere prospect, Joba Chamberlain, to do so.
And yet, Cashman expresses no regrets, he issues no apologies, he instead insists, still, that in forsaking Santana, he made the right decision. Why? Because in 2012, when Mariano and Posada have retired and Jeter and A-Rod have devolved into average hitters, Phil Hughes, might, just might, be a 1 or a 2 starter. And if so, by then, will it matter? Will it matter if the Yankees' lineup produces as many runs as the 2008 Blue Jays.
The only thing missing from Cashman's public protests is the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner hanging in the background, under which it would be fitting for him to deliver all his press conferences.
Then at least he'd have finished the picture his little fit of pique intimates. Then, the parallels with the Bush family would be complete.
Cashman and Dubya each would have arrived on 3rd base and tried to steal 2nd.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Naturally, the Yankees GM's office won't help to clarify matters either. Their vested interest in the regimen they prescribed for this season precludes an objective autopsy, certainly not one they're going to publicize anyway. The Cashman mantra has become, "Never admit error, never apologize, never express regret." Accept responsibility but never say why.
Already the Front-Office has begun to circulate the convenient half-truth that the Yankees didn't fulfill expectations because injuries struck and their hitters failed them. But when only two pitchers in your entire rotation have started 25 or more games and when you enjoy the dubious distinction of the only pitching staff in baseball without 3 or more starters who threw 115 or more innings, something far more endemic is amiss.
Still, Cashman insists he didn't seal the Yankees fate in January by entrusting 40% of his rotation to two pitchers under 23 with less than 100 major league inning between them. As recently as this Sunday The New York Times quotes him defending himself by citing the Minnesota Twins' example of Blackburn, Slowey, and Perkins. Of course, Cashman omits the caveat. All three of the Twins pitchers are 25 and over, and the Twins boast a long, venerable history of evaluating and developing young pitchers that the Yankees don't possess. Indeed the struggles Maddux, Glavine, Clemens, Sabathia, Haren, and Beckett all underwent in the major leagues when they were 20, 21, and 22 provide the far more apposite and informative precedent that Cashman conveniently skirts.
And with Johan Santana a Met, CC Sabathia already telling friends he wants to return home to the West Coast, and the Blue Jays offering the oft-injured AJ Burnett a lucrative 3-year contract extension, the Yankees confront yet another off-season in which an ace will elude them and another Spring with a starting 5 of Wang, Youth, Senescence, Injury-Risk and Enigma.
Worse, many of the writers who cover the team and pride themselves on independent judgment have succumbed to the front-office's cant and have espoused the snake oil cures they're peddling.
Writers like John Heyman and Joel Sherman, to name two, will ascribe the Yankees' ills this year to the precipitous decline from the 968 runs they scored in 2007 to the less than 787 runs they scored in 2008. And then in the very same column, the prescription they advance would rid the Yankees of two of their most productive hitters this season, Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi, without identifying commensurate replacements. '3' and '5' hitters with .375 and over on-base-averages and .850 OPSs don't grow on trees. Or when they do, to pluck them, Scott Boras will charge 150 million dollars. Meanwhile, placing faith in the recovery of a catcher with a torn labrum and a Japanese DH with chronically arthritic knees to mitigate the loss rings less of a cure however than than the sound of whistling as you pass the grave.YOU ARE WHAT YOU BEAT
In the Pythagorean formula Bill James derived, we must acknowledge, he, in many ways, revolutionized our understanding of the game. For the debate about the respective importance of pitching and hitting to a team's performance had raged since the game's beginning. Yet it was not until James' revelation that we discovered we could quantify the relationship.
Winning Percentage = RS^2 + RA ^2 / RS^2. As simple and self-evident, perhaps, as E=mc^2, but relying just as much on the inspiration of genius to see it.
However, the Jamesian theorem also carries with it a danger. It lend itself to fallacy because it encourages analysts to examine Runs Scored and Runs Allowed in a vaccum, as separate and independent variables, and to forget that baseball is a complex and interdependent system.
That is, the Yankees RS total does not rise or fall on its lineup's performance alone. The team's RS total depends as much on the other half of the equation-- their opponents' RA, i.e., the potency of their staff and the proficiency of their defense.
Blaming the Yankees' anemic lineup this season in general and the shortfall in production from A-Rod, Cano, and Posada for the Yankees fate in 2008, then, tells a partial and misleading story. It's like attributing a patient's anemia to the fall in his red-blood cell count without ascertaining whether he's eating enough iron or whether his g.i. system is digesting it.
To be sure, the Yankees scored fewer runs in 2008 than 2007 not only because they're team OBA and RISP, .369 and .290 respectively in 2007, fell to .342 and .262, respectively, in 2008 but because their opponents' pitching improved as well-- the opponents, in particular, in the AL EAST
THE AL B-EAST
In 2008, the Yankees scored 789 runs in total, 323 of those runs scored against the AL East opponents. In contrast, in 2007, the team scored 420 runs against the same four opponents, and 968 runs in total. I enumerate the break down by team below.
- Baltimore -- 107.................................Baltimore-- 91
- Boston -- 93.......................................Boston-- 93
- Tampa-- 133......................................Tampa-- 76
- Toronto-- 87......................................Toronto-- 65
- TOTAL= 420...................................TOTAL= 323
The 97 run decline accounts for approximately 50% of the difference between the Yankees total runs scored in 2007 and 2008. 968 (2007) - 789 (2008) = 179 total run differential. 97/179 = ~54%
In fact, 26% of the total decline in the Yankees RS total over the last year stems from the Yankees' performance against one team, the Rays (47/179). Which is the result one should expect against a Rays pitching staff that dramatically improved from 14th in the AL (5.53 ERA) in 2007 to 2nd in the AL with (3.80 ERA) in 2008.
Add to this the improvement in the Blue Jays staff ERA from its 4.00 ERA in 2007 to its 3.51 ERA in 2008 and together, the Jays and the Rays, pitching staffs explain ~40% of the decline in the Yankees' run production from 2007 to 2008 [47 (rays) + 22 (jays) / 179 (run differential)].
The Orioles and Red Sox pitch staffs' performance, by contrast, varied little from their performances the previous year. The Orioles pitching staff practically duplicated its futility of 2007, a 5.17 ERA, by posting a 5.13 ERA in 2008. The Red Sox staff ERA, meanwhile, stayed about the same as well, declining from 3.87 to 4.01. (The Yankees' staff ERA, on the other hand, improved by about as much, from a 4.49 ERA in 2007 to a 4.30 ERA in 2008). And the Yankees RS totals against the Red Sox in 2007 and 2008 mirror each other, and the RS totals against the Orioles over the two years don't differ much either.
Further illustrating that the decline in Yankees' RS total owe far more to their opponents' improved pitching than their lineup's inadequacies, the Red Sox lineup's experience, in many ways, parallels the Yankees.
In 2008, the Red Sox scored 839 runs, 2nd in the AL. (In 2007, the Red Sox scored 867 runs, 3rd in the AL.) Yet they didn't fare much better this year against the Jays and Rays than the Yankees did. In 2007, the Red Sox scored 113 against Tampa; in 2008, 87. In 2007, the Red Sox scored 91 against the Jays, in 2008, 60.
Three of the top four rotations in the AL (1st Toronto, 2nd Tampa, and 4th Red Sox) are in the AL East. Collectively, the Yankees will play 33% of their games against them.
The first three starters of the Rays' likely 2009 rotation posted the following numbers: Kazmir (3.50 ERA), Shields (3.56 ERA), Garza (3.70 ERA) = 552 innings
The Red Sox: Matsusaka (2.90 ERA), Lester (3.21 ERA), Becket (4.03 ERA)= 552 innings
The Blue Jays: Halliday (2.78 ERA), Litsch (3.58 ERA), and if he stays, Burnett (4.07 ERA)[ if not McGowan (4.53 ERA), by June]= 643 IPs
The Yankees' likely rotation for 2009? If its Wang (4.00 ERA)(200 IP), Mussina and/or Pettitte (4.00 ERA)(200 IP) and if for the remaining 300 IPs they have to rely on Chamberlain (2.76 ERA)(65.1 IP) and Hughes (6.62 ERA)(34 IPs), then in 2009, our post-mortem may very well commence in August.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
When the Yankees' season ends, I mourn. A love has abandoned me. The consolation of 162 forlorn evenings and stressful days has vanished. A six-month drama, sometimes exasperating, sometimes exhilirating, but never other than captivating, had ended. I've lost a steady and intimate friend.
And for each unconsummated ending, grief bear its own metaphor.
1986-1993-- a mercy killing. Death after a long, bleak sickness symptomized by dull, agonizing pain and a morphine-induced amnesiac malaise.
1994-- the tragic suicide of youth brimming with the promise of re-birth.
1995-- a sudden heart attack that's tearful and tragic, but somehow redemptive because of a man who'd long outlived the dire prognosis and had, until the final moment, cheated the end.
2001 through 2003-- the passing of a very distinguished, very old man who dies peacefully and painlessly in his sleep after a full, magnificent, vital life and whose accomplishments' grandeur and whose bequest's lavishness comfort his adoring heirs.
2004-- a President's assassination on the White House lawn, a murder so freakish, so catastrophic, so historically notorious that it bespeaks Divine vengeance. Call it Fate, Destiny, the Gods, what have you: the universe's dark and inscrutable forces have intervened. An apocalypse destroys the existing order and creates shock and awe in its wake. It's horror is its mercy. Memory yields to oblivion.
2005-2007-- a car accident, rapid, abrupt, brutal; and no less unexpected or devastating the first time around than the third. One minute the engine won't start, the next the Lexus is flying West along I-80 at top speed, music blaring, the crisp, bracing air and golden sunshine auguring glorious Autumn ahead. And then, suddenly, the crash. In a split second, the world is upended. Traumatic but quick. Bury the season, say Kadish. Stay warm and fight despair until Hot Stove begins.Not this year. For Yankees fans, 2008 season has inflicted a brand of torment so exquisite and unique it rivals none and begs a ritual to mourn it. 1965? I wasn't born yet. '79 and '82 I can barely remember.
I wish I could. For 2008 reeks of the darkness before the blackness. The Dying of Light in August. Going gently, without rage or suspense or fight, into the fell night. 2008 signifies the dull, omnipresent ache of dwindling days, of marking time before execution, of a protracted, anguish-ridden dying preliminary to death.
It has evoked something of the slow, excruciating, torment I imagine loved ones suffer as they sit vigil over a terminal middle-aged, cancer patient. Radical treatments, sporadic remissions, fleeting signs of recovery afflict rather than assuage. They tantalize with a hope they cannot possibly deliver.
Oh yes, the last September in Ruth's House has turned out historical, after all. The 2008 New York Yankees: Fourth place, under 90 wins, a Lineup that conjures less Murderers' Lineup than Death's Row. The late 80's revisited.
Symptoms of 2008's malignancy, actually, manifested as early as May. In retrospect, we just refused to recognize them. Injured veterans. Floundering rookies. Skill regression. Down years. A surly, rigid manager. A blinkered, hidebound GM. A tattered pitching staff. Pressing hitters. Low RISP averages. Inopportune errors. Missed Cutoffs. Inept bunts. Botched double-plays. Careless baserunning. The runner, with less than 2 outs, forever stranded on 3d base.
But denial was so easy. Some facile explanation-- the weather, the birth pangs of youth, the slow starts of age-- was always ready at hand. And hadn't the team stood at 11-19 in 2005 and at 21-29 just last season? They'd defied the premature obituaries. So too will this one, won't it?
Only the 2008 Yankees never recuperated. More accurately, depleted, debilitated, and old before their time, they've never really breathed life. They've survived, sure. But in a place where their lineage defines identity as "I win, therefore I am" the 2008 Yankees almost count as stillborn, a fetus that never quite existed.
Denial only deferred the reckoning. And when Joba Chamberlain walked off that mound in Texas he took the final prayer with him. Life-support has sustained the team ever since. A 2-4 homsestand in late August against Boston and Toronto just confirmed and publicized the diagnosis. And this time, foiled so often before, the Grim Reaper secured his bounty. The malignancy had metastasized and spread everywhere. No miracle would save them this year. The 2008 Yankees were dying and they weren't coming back.
Like flies to wanton boys are teams to the Baseball Gods, cruel and malicious with a sadistic flair for irony. For the final act of a moribund Stadium, they've cast a terminal patient. A September to forget has become one we will forever have to remember. Then, come October, Ruth's Ghost will have to the House he built all to himself.
In the meantime while their perverse tragic-comedy unfolds, I wince at the gallows humor. Along the stages of grief, bargaining and depression long since have yielded to acceptance. All that remains is to pry from the abyss some meager saving grace, the strength and dignity that comes from graceful endurance and the preparation granted you when you know a certain end awaits.
And so, here, I sit, paying vigil to a living corpse, however dreadful and desolating. However painful the daily reminder that on September 28 the 2008 Yankees will expire, I watch over and love what little of them remains. There will be time, of course, for eulogies and autopsies too. The vultures already are circling. The recriminations have begun. Last year, thirteen consecutive Octobers had multiple fathers. 2008 is an orphan.
For now, I offer the Yankees my allegiance and succor. Small comfort perhaps but I have no power to change their fate. A debt of loyalty, support, and gratitude, I owe them nonetheless. This they deserve, at the very least. For 13 straight years, a brilliant, prodigious, sublime Yankee Colossus has inhabited my life. It has brightened my summers. It has animated my September. It has raised early autumn to a Fever pitch.
This Great Dying Yankee Colossus has inscribed my memories with joys and sorrows and made for Octobers I will cherish forever.
This year, however, I grieve. I grieve for an October bereft, for the dying of an era, and for a Cathedral that closed not with a bang but a whimper.
HEAR O' TAMPA MY PRAYER.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
You have to admire Brian Cashman. Even when he's wrong, he's right. At least in his eyes, anyway.
Indeed, it takes a certain genius to stare folly in the face and call it wisdom. Or in that rare instance, when failure allows for no other conclusion, to remain utterly convinced that the cause lies elsewhere than one's own judgment. It's a gift, perhaps, all Chief Executives possess. At the very least it's something the Bronx, at the moment, shares in common with Washington.
Sure, Cashman pays lip service to accountability. He hasn't held his job for longer than any man before him without being shrewd and wily and resilient enough to know that the infrequent but opportune mea culpa comes with the title. Two humiliating losses to the Red Sox with the season on the brink occasioned his latest.
"If anything, you're starting to see the necessity of [why] you have to get younger ... We've had some injuries, there's no doubt about it, but we've got some key guys who haven't performed like they're capable of. Is that because of age? I think we have extremely talented players. I've put together a club that is where it's at. I'm responsible for that ... I think Girardi's done a tremendous job given what's occurred," Cashman said. "The buck stops right here with me.”
Or does it? For all Cashman's expressed fondness for Harry Truman, the fine print tells another story.
Parsing the comments reveals Cashman didn't concede any error at all-- not in the manager he hired ("a tremendous job"), not in the team he assembled ("extremely talented"), not in his performance or decisions ("some key guys haven't performed") and certainly not in the notorious off-season trade he foreclosed.
As usual, Newsday's Ken Davidoff exposed the truth of the matter. Did Cashman regret forsaking, not once, but twice, in the past year, the chance to acquire the most precious commodity in baseball-- the proven, under 30-year-old left-handed ace the Yankees have coveted since, oh, the days of Ron Guidry, say? Not in the least.
"I feel a strong reluctance to trade three or four assets to another team [for a player] and then sign him to a multiyear contract," Cashman said, "You trade for a guy, give up three or four assets [and then pay him], then you've crushed your payroll and your assets at the same time." http://www.newsday.com/sports/baseball/yankees/ny-spken295821183aug29,0,6550246.column
"Assets": a Cashman shibboleth, it would seem, along with "the process." For the word has become a recurring theme in the self-justification that underlies the GM's pretense to accountability.
RETENTION FETISHES AND BLIND SPOTS
Bob Klapisch's latest article for ESPN relates an amusing and very telling anecdote about how Cashman actually regards his decision.
Apparently, a disgruntled fan somehow uncovered Cashman's E-mail address and sent a note at which Brian bridled. "You're no Theo Epstein," it read and went on to criticize Theo's counterpart for deciding to re-sign Andy Pettitte instead of acquiring Johan Santana.
Never mind that the choice the anonymous writer posed between Pettitte and Santana surrenders half the argument. The Yankees could had both and never intimated to the contrary. They continued to discuss trade proposals with the Twins even after they re-signed Pettitte. No, the choice was not between Santana or Pettitte but between Santana or Hughes-- Hughes, that is, and Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez, and Mitch Hilligoss. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/2007/12/05/2007-12-05_brian_cashman_yanks_balk_at_millions_and.html
The writer's flawed logic, notwithstanding, credit him this much: he worried Cashman's greatest insecurity sufficiently to incite a response.
"We signed Pettitte and kept our other assets," Cashman fired back; "I'm sorry you were led to believe otherwise."
Notice, again, Brian's fixation on "assets" as though accumulating and retaining prospects were an end in itself rather than a means to improving the team's major league roster.
Memo to Brian: "assets" are only worth "keeping" if they hold their value or appreciate. On the other hand, when their value plummets and the opportunity to sell them at a premium is lost, assets no longer remain assets. They become liabilities.
Indeed, Phil Hughes' stock along with Melky Cabrera's, Jeff Marquez', and Ian Kennedy's (another jewel of the farm system, supposedly) all have depreciated this year. And the established ace that can throw 200 innings and that can anchor the rotation has eluded the Yankees once again and has consigned another promising season to a tragic ending. Only this year it arrived one month early.
What's so problematic, however, is not that Brian Cashman made the wrong decision. After all, the error only appears self-evident in hindsight. Cashman's position on Santana was arguable, if not exactly sound, at the time he advanced it. No, what's so problematic about it is that the GM still defends his folly, adamantly so, in fact, and for the wrong reasons. He doesn't concede that his decision looks misguided only if you narrow the horizon to this year alone. No, Brian kept his "assets", he writes, case closed. Does he actually believe this fact alone wins the argument?
"If you choose to play in that [free-agent] marketplace, the one thing you'd be sacrificing is a draft pick," Cashman told Ken Davidoff. "We're very protective of our draft picks, but for the right player and the right circumstance ... I've always said we're still big-game hunters."
But what if that game don't hunt, to borrow a Clintonism. What if the ace you could have had via trade isn't available to the Yankees via the free-agency because he'd prefer to play elsewhere? (As Sabathia already has disclosed, he favors the West Coast and the National League.)
That is, what if a player of Santana's, Sabathia's, or Pedro Martinez's caliber is so rare that he becomes available once or twice a decade and only through trading one's "assets" and signing him to a long-term deal besides? Does Brian actually believe that it's never wise to trade one or more premium "assets" whose value is impossible to project in exchange for a precious and proven commodity. How utterly foolish!
Is Theo a better GM than Brian? My answer ranges somewhere between ignorance and indifference: I don't know and I don't care.
But Cashman's correspondent was correct in this respect and about this I know and I care profoundly. The Red Sox, twice in the past decade, have done precisely what Cashman claims shouldn't be done and in both instances, they were better for it: they've traded "assets" for an ace and then signed said ace to a long-term contract.
In 1997, the Red Sox traded Carl Pavano (don't you love the irony?) and Tony Armas Jr. for Pedro Martinez and proceeded to make him the then highest-paid pitcher in baseball. They gave him an unprecedented 6-year, $75 million contract. And almost overnight, the team's fortunes underwent a dramatic reversal. After finishing fourth the year before, the Red Sox, in Martinez's first year, qualified for the playoffs, and finished second or better every year Pedro pitched for them, thereafter.
Eight year later, Theo, himself, rehearsed the feat. The Red Sox traded four "assets", including Henley Ramirez and Anibel Sanchez, for Josh Beckett and then signed him to a 4-year $42 million extension plus an additional $18 million they had to assume in Mike Lowell's contract.
But whether Cashman is or is not a better GM than Theo doesn't trouble me. Why the GM of the team in which I have invested "assets" more precious than money-- my heart, my time, and my loyalty-- why he has so persistently erred in his evaluation of starting pitchers does trouble me however. More so, it troubles me that evidently he doesn't see them as errors at all.
CASHMAN D.B.: THE BOSS ERA
Indeed, Cashman's decisions on starting pitchers records one pratfall after another. He has misjudged the talent of minor-league pitchers and miscalculated the fitness of major league pitchers for New York. To illustrate, see below.
- '99-- Mike Lowell for Ed Yarnall, Todd Noel, and Mark Johnson
- '02-- Ted Lily, Jason Arnold and John Ford Griffiths for Jeff Weaver
- '03-- El Duque for Antonio Osuna and Delvis Lantigua
- '03-- Jeff Weaver, Brandon Weeden, and Yhency Brazoban for Kevin Brown
- '03-- Juan Rivera, Nick Johnson, and Randy Choate for Javier Vasquez
- '04-- Jose Contreras for Esteban Loiza
- '04-- Signing Carl Pavano and Jared Wright instead of Derek Lowe
- '05-- Javier Vasquez, Dioner Navarro, and Brad Halsey for Randy Johnson
- '06-- signing Kei Igawa instead of Ted Lilly
Cashman's lone major addition to the rotation that counts as an unequivocal success is his trade of David Wells, Homer Bush, and Graeme Lloyd for Roger Clemens. A few minor trades, perhaps, qualify as well: his acquisition of Denny Neagle and Shawn Chacon. Still the starters who formed the keystones upon which the Yankees built their dynasty during the late 90's-- Cone, Key/Wells, Pettitte, and El Duque-- Cashman's predecessors, Michael and Watson, had obtained before he became GM.
In fairness to Brian, before 2005, he didn't actually possess the full prerogatives the title of GM implies. As such, George and his Tampa kitchen cabinet account for a few of the more egregious miscalculations above: signing Jared Wright and trading Jose Contreras. But Brian orchestrated many of the above trades as well or at least, has claimed to--Jeff Weaver, Kevin Brown, Javier Vasquez, Carl Pavano, and relinquishing Mike Lowell for what amounted to nothing in return.
CASHMAN A.B.: THE POST-BOSS ERA
Astute Yankee fans, of course, applaud Cashman for the principal objective he's pursued since assuming full authority in 2005-- disenfranchising George's kitchen cabinet, dismissing Lin Garrett's retinue of scouting incompetents, re-investing in the draft, and rebuilding the Yankee farm system.
He recognized years ago that the Yankees had to rebuild their farm system because revenue-sharing meant less and less genuine talent entered the free-agent market and when it did, more and more, it commanded inflated contracts that taxed teams' financial ability to address other needs, even the affluent Yankees. The nucleus of the next Yankee championship team, Cashman realized, had to arise from within as had its predecessor. Cashman also saw that teams profited from cultivating talent rather than buying it for reasons beyond money. Developing pitching, in particular, enabled teams to control innings, to limit injury risk, to mold character, to evaluate drive, and to predict how the pressure of New York would affect each player.
The wisdom and imperative of Cashman's goal and the vast improvement his leadership represents cannot be gainsaid. The Yankees could have done much worse these last ten years. Indeed, in the area over which Cashman exercised no control for seven of those ten years, the amateur draft, they did.
Nevertheless, his miscalculations about pitchers, past and present, beg the question whether he's best suited to bring the project he's begun to fruition.
Leave aside his eschewal of Santana and the opportunity he squandered to acquire Sabathia (then to try to persuade Sabathia to stay in New York.)
Questions abound, still, about organizational decisions he's made since he's become Commander-in Chief.1) Just two weeks ago, why did the Yankees join the Washington Nationals as the only two teams in baseball to fail to sign their first-round draft pick? Whatever the explanation, whether Gerrit Cole misrepresented his interest or Scott Boras deceived the team or Cole's father overruled them both-- whatever the explanation, for the result there's no excuse. Sharing anything in common with the Nationals is an embarrassment. Were that not enough, as it happens, the Yankees, evidently, wasted their second-round pick as well. The player they selected Scott Bittle they ultimately decided not to sign. (They did however sign their supplemental pick, pitcher Jeremy Bleich)
2) Why didn't the GM retain Larry Bowa? Bowa, since, has said he wanted to stay and in fact, deferred decisions on other offers until he heard from the Yankees. Apart from being an exceptional 3d base coach, he, evidently, was influential in Cano's development. Cano isn't the same player this year, either at the plate or in the field. Worse, Bobby Meacham, Bowa's replacement, has proven about as reliable at third-base as he was once at short-stop.
3) Why did Cashman place so much trust in Ian Kennedy, a pitcher with a single season of professional baseball, and 19 major league innings-- so much in fact that he assigned him a spot in the Yankees starting rotation before Spring Training even started? Did his performance in three starts in September really warrant such favor?
4) Is Joe Girardi's tense, irascible personality, that occasionally smacks of the defensive, imperial martinet, who cannot suffer to have his judgment questioned let alone criticized-- is he suited for a veteran team or the relentless scrutiny of New York? And what do Cashman and Girardi actually think they're accomplishing by displaying a penchant for secrecy, if not outright flagrant dishonesty, about player injuries that could make Nixon and Haldeman blanch? They act like they're in possession of industrial trade secrets the disclosure of which could decide a pennant race. What precisely would the Red Sox have gained had they known, along with the rest of us, that Joba Chamberlain's shoulder tendonitus would sideline him for about a month? Would they really have been more or less apt to place a waiver claim on Paul Byrd or to acquire Mark Kotsay? Perhaps, Cashman and Girardi have become a bit too enamored of the power their knowledge grants them. In the meantime, they've antagonized the press and alienated their fans as a consequence.
5) How can Cashman look at a team with a starting rotation where Sidney Ponson, Daryl Rasner, and Carl Pavano comprise the 3rd, 4th, and 5th starters and in his latest mea culpa, puzzle over why his team isn't performing? Cashman even has the temerity to tell Jon Heyman the reason the Yankees have underperformed isn't the pitching at all: "We haven't hit; that's the biggest reason for where we are. This team's DNA was supposed to mean 900 runs. We've had injuries but we haven't performed.'' (SI.COM, August 29, 2008) One wonders whether Brian actually believes his own cant. The Yankees Runs Scored-Runs Allowed differential is the second-worst in the AL East, second to the last-place Orioles. Has it ever occurred to him, that his offense has "underperformed" because they're all too aware of who is toeing the mound and pressing as a consequence? (In 2007, the Yankees scored 240 of their league-leading 968 runs or 25% against TWO teams, the Rays and the Orioles. If Brian knew the Rays were going to be dramatically better this year, as he conceded in Spring Training, against whom did he think the Yankees were going to generate enough runs to duplicate last season's total?)
6) Anyway, isn't negligent, at best, for Cashman to have depended on the production of a lineup where every hitter but one exceeded 32 years of age-- a plan designed to ensure against Hughes and Kennedy's struggles-- and neither anticipate injuries nor ensure his bench contained enough depth to replace the players injured?
The Yankees bench to start the 2008 was as woeful as their bench to begin 2007. In 2008, it consisted of Jose Molina, Morgan Ensberg, Shelly Duncan, and Wilson Betemit. Meanwhile, in 2007, Cashman began the season with 4 players capable of playing 1st base, Giambi, Minky, Phelps, Cairo; a minor-league catcher, Will Nieves; and Melky Cabrera. He hadn't even invited Shelly Duncan to spring training and then waited until July 20th to promote him.
7) What exactly did Cashman think he was accomplishing by disparaging Bernie Williams' worth ethic this off-season and praising Carl Pavano's eight months later?
8) And Kei Igawa? Organizations overestimate talent all the time. But how the Yankees could risk $46 million on a Japanese pitcher, who doesn't even dominate in AAA, utterly baffles reason. Worse, Cashman, not missing the opportunity to repeat the mistake of trading him in the first place, could have allocated a roughly equivalent amount on Ted Lily, a pitcher who already demonstrated he could hold his own in the AL East. Say what you will Ted Lily is a major league pitcher who threw 175 innings this year. Do you think the Yankees would have profited from having him instead of Igawa last year, Ponson this year, and God knows, who as their fifth starter in 2009?
YOU'RE NO THEO
But above all, Cashman is no Theo because he isn't equipped with equivalent or superior baseball minds around him.
The Red Sox front-office includes two former GMs in Larry Lucchino and Allard Baird, a disciple in Jed Hoyer, and the visionary Bill James. The Yankees Front-Office consists of two business people in the prominent positions of President and Assistant GM, Randy Levine and Jean Afterman: the first was a former deputy mayor and the second was the general counsel and negotiator for Japanese agent Don Nomura. Neither's forte is evaluating player talent. In fact, the one person in the Yankees' front-office with an established resume in this regard, Gene Michael, Cashman, according to Michael, consults only rarely.
Cashman's contract expires this off-season. And as ambivalent as I am about his judgment, I hope he returns. The Yankees can, and have, done much worse. Whatever his checkered record on starting pitching, he has made some very shrewd trades for position players over the years, from A-Rod to David Justice to Bobby Abreu and perhaps, Xavier Nady. And the farm system, especially down at the A-level in Charleston, has improved dramatically.
Nonetheless, if he does return, either he has to hire, or the Steinbrenners' must retain, more and better minds to surround him. People confident enough to speak the truth when their GM is wrong even if it costs them. For at present the talent gap separating the Yankees and the Red Sox transcends the personnel inside the diamond. Come this off-season it's the first void ownership needs to fill and the sooner, the better.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
There was a time, long ago, when Brian Cashman distinguished himself as the voice of sanity and reason in the Yankees Front-Office.
Andy Pettitte would pitch poorly. Tino Martinez would slump. Boston would sign David Ortiz. Jose Contreras would lose again to the Red Sox.
The Boss would fume; the tabloids snicker. Joe Torre would sip green tea. And the Tampa Hill- Billies, Connors and Emslie, would wheedle and conspire, sabotaging the roster and robbing the farm.
Meanwhile, Brian Cashman would assume the role Gene Michael once played. He'd counsel patience and discretion. He'd espouse fiscal responsibility. He'd urge the Boss to re-invest below and hold fast to his prospects.
And when the Boss heeded his GM, wisdom, more often than not, prevailed in Yankeeland. Often enough, in fact, that Cashman even persuaded the Boss in late 2005 to subdue the renegade Tampa faction and to grant him the full authority he'd deserved all along. Finally, Brian could execute his plan for the Yankees future without impediment or subversion.
Was it a Pyrrhic victory? Ten years, after all, is a long time for any sane man to spend fighting turf battles inside the Yankee bunker without it warping his perceptions and distorting his judgment. Indeed, with the team staring into the abyss for the first time throughout Cashman's tenure, the GM's recent comments utterly baffle reality. They make one wonder whether the pressure, the criticism, the regret has gotten finally to Brian Cashman and whether he has become the very deluded, irrational agent he once had to fend off.
It is the job of a GM, no less than a CEO, of course, to defend his organization and to protect his personnel in the face of failure, ridicule, and crisis. But it's one thing to justify one of A-Rod's slump as unrepresentative or to reaffirm his steadfast faith in Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, despite the former's cavalier remarks and the latter's vulnerability to injury-- they're still 23 and 22 years old respectively; in baseball, just children-- but it's one thing to guard the kids and quite another to defend Carl Pavano, an overgrown child. By defending the defensible and vehemently so, has Cashman not suggested he has entirely lost his purchase on reality?
"Carl Pavano", Cashman told The Daily News' Anthony McCarron, "has worked his butt off. He's always tried. He just hasn't stayed healthy... He's one of the hardest workers we've got. People don't want to realize it or look at it, but that's true. He hasn't laid down on us..."
Wait, the pitcher who missed half of 2005 and all of 2006 and set the unprecedented example of spending 18 months on the disabled list without sustaining an operable injury; the pitcher who has managed to pitch 19 games in four years; the pitcher, the Yankees very own union representative, Mike Mussina, dismisses as a malingerer and upon re-signing with the Yankees, according to Josh Feinstein, told Cashman "You're not paying me less than Pavano" -- he is "one of the hardest workers [the Yankees] got."
Well, then, Brian your organization has a very serious problem, far worse than its performance this season. Either that, or in the "people" who refuse "to realize" the self-evident "it," the Freudians have themselves a superbly dramatic illustration of the telling "slip of the tongue".
In fact, to appreciate fully just how deluded Cashman's defense of Pavano makes him sound, compare them with how, just eight months ago, the Yankee GM characterized the work ethic of one of Pavano's teammates.
About the center-fielder who delivered the GM four championship rings, Cashman, recall, had this to say,"[He] got into his music and that took away from his play," and that as a consequence, in 2005, he'd had a "terrible season".
Bernie Williams, a foundational pillar to the Yankees late 90's dynasty, neglected his responsibilities and deserted his team in 2005. However, Carl Pavano, who declined to pitch through shoulder tendinitis after the Yankees lost Wang, "is one of the hardest workers [you've] got." Bernie Williams' season in 2005 was terrible because through 141 games his OPS was down 20% from the previous season. And Carl Pavano's 4.77 ERA during the half season he actually pitched, down 37% from 2004, we assess as terrific?
In what world is Bernie Williams remiss, a disservice to his team and derelict in his responsibilities and Carl Pavano, industrious and a credit to it? Well, like Jonathan Schell, once wrote about Nixon,
"Until facts intruded he lived in a closed world in which he rarely had any experiences he had not arranged for himself. As in a dream....his communion with himself would continue uninterrupted, and the world he saw would have been co-extensive with his thought processes... And, at the center, a perfect closed circle in which he talked into his tapes and his tapes talked to him."
I only hope Cashman is more cunning and less sincere than we realize. Otherwise, he will come to share with the former President more than their influence on George Steinbrenner's legacy in common.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
..The feeling that it's all a lot of age and no pearls... A long September... and I try to hold on to the moments of summers past.... For its one more year from Hero's Canyon... And its one more series out in Hollywood... Its been so long since I've mourned September...I guess I should." -- With Liberties, from "A Long December," by the Counting Crows.
With 40 games remaining in the Yankees' season, the team's fortunes have sunk to their lowest point, and look bleaker, than in any year in recent memory. Not since 1995, when on August 13, the Yankees were 9 games behind AL East leading Boston and 10.5 games behind wild-card leading Anaheim, has the prospect of the Yankees reaching the playoffs appeared so remote so late in the season.
Sure, baseball has its own magical way of defying the odds and thwarting the expected. Indeed, history is littered with the shredded obituaries of Yankees-haters so eager to throw dirt on the body and to gloat over the funeral that they neglect to wait for a corpse.
But at the moment, Don Quixote, himself, would be hard-pressed to make Giants of Pinstripes. The Yankees don't scare or intimidate anymore. Indeed the heat they generate arises, by and large, from their uptight, seething manager and their owners' hot-air.
That hot air has occasionally blown a balmy Tampa breeze through the New York chill. Hank is not George, the cheap and facile press comparison, notwithstanding. His magnanimity he displayed in re-signing A-Rod; his ridicule of ESPN; his unabashed regrets about Johan Santana; his refreshing candor about player injuries; his zeal to win--- have warmed the hearts of many a Yankees fan.
Still his latest missive that would ascribe the Yankees' woes to an aberrant rash of injuries from which few teams could recover may not completely qualify as a lame excuse, as his detractors claim. It does however tell a partial and self-serving story.
Yes, the Yankees' disabled list reads like a hospital roster. Wang, Posada, Matsui, Hughes, Bruney all have missed or will miss more than 50% of the season. Damon and A-Rod each spent over three weeks on the DL; and Joba's current stint, very well, may match or exceed their stay. Indeed among the Yankees opening day starting nine, only Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Bobby Abreu have played in 95% of the Yankees first 121 games. And the latter two have degenerated into the least productive regulars in the lineup.
But injuries only explain so much. The RC/G (runs created per game) averages of Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Melky Cabrera all have dropped 25% or more over their totals from last year. Indeed, through 3/4 of the season the team has scored 580 runs, a pace of about 780 for the season, representing a 20% decline from 2007.
Then, too, the GM's and Manager's errors and character flaws have played a part as well. In this post, I assign Cashman his share of responsibility; in a forthcoming one, I will address Girardi's.
THE HUBRIS AND THE ARROGANCE
"Keith Hernandez said that over the weekend of the Angels series he ran into Cashman relaxing with friends in an East Hampton restaurant... 'Under another Steinbrenner he probably couldn't do that,' Cohen said"--- Bob Raisman, August 17, 2008
Despite the New York press' penchant for exaggeration, there tendency to portray public figures in black and white, either as geniuses or fools, Brian Cashman is neither. He is a competent GM, a competent GM who has betrayed some rather disconcerting character flaws of late.
Yes, Cashman deserves his due for wresting control from the George's incompetent Tampa cronies and restoring priority to the amateur draft and the farm system. Cashman also has made his share of shrewd trades over the years which do him credit, balanced, of course, by his share of grievous mistakes. The overall record is a mixed and equivocal one. (I intend to examine his record in a more thorough post in the upcoming months that will coincide with his contract's expiration at season's end.)
My reservations with Cashman's leadership began this off-season. A pettiness and arrogance surfaced that heretofore we hadn't witness Cashman betray. I can't quibble with the GM's silence during the Torre fiasco; even though, in retrospect, it seems evident he preferred Girardi to Torre. That's his prerogative. Cashman's subsequent public criticism of Torre and effort to assign his former manager blame for failures in which he played a part, in addition to his passing shots at Bernie Williams' fitness and commitment in 2005, were unseemly and shameful. In a conference at William Patterson College in January, Cashman accused his retired CF of prioritizing music to baseball in 2005 and attributing his unproductive season that year to his divided focus. Even if true-- and there's good reason to think age more than anything accounted for his decline-- the comment was unnecessary. The Yankees, effectively, retired Bernie the year earlier. Impugning his commitment two year after the fact could serve no purpose other than to besmirch his reputation. But George's protege was finished evidently. He accused his former manager of dereliction as well. In an exercise in revisionist history, Cashman charged Torre with playing Williams over more talented players. Cashman must have forgotten that he'd lost Matsui and Sheffield that year for the season's lion share and that Torre had no choice but to play Bernie. And what more talented player was Cashman referring to? Melky Cabrera? In Bernie's worst year, 2005, he was a more productive player than Melky Cabrera is or probably, ever will be.
But what Cashman did or didn't say is far less responsible for the predicament in which the Yankees now find themselves than what he did and did not do. Albeit, once again, word and deed each illustrate the same tragic overconfidence.
One wonders why Cashman was the only one-- excluding, of course, his apologists and acolytes in the blogosphere-- who couldn't see the disaster he courted in entrusting 40% to 60% of his rotation to Hughes, Kennedy, and Joba. All three rookie pitchers, untested over a full season; all three subject to inning caps; all three under 24 and as Baseball Prospectus recently has shown, susceptible to injury as a consequence. The idea that in the New York crucible-- amid the pressure and scrutiny of an adversarial press, an impatient fan base, an outspoken ownership, and the hype of the Stadium last year-- three rookie pitchers, who'd totalled 116 major league innings between them could develop, flourish, and lead their team to the playoffs seemed, even then, a fanciful pipe dream, at best, and deluded folly, at worst. (See "GM Pride and Prejudice", February 29, 2008 and "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant", March 31, 20008)
Most of the greatest pitchers of our generation, Maddux, Glavine, Halliday, all struggled their first full seasons pitching in the majors. Many more sustained injuries that prematurely ended them. Why Cashman thought Hughes and Kennedy should be any different baffles and incenses me to this day.
The Santana development only crystallized my misgivings about Cashman's judgment and leadership. Now, Cashman's decisions on starting pitcher rarely has distinguished itself. To the contrary, they record one folly after another: (i) Ted Lily for Jeff Weaver; (ii) Jeff Weaver for Kevin Brown, (iii) Juan Rivera, Nick Johnson, and Randy Choate for Javier Vasquez; (iv) Javier Vasquez for Randy Johnson; (v) Jose Contreras for Esteban Loiza; (vi) forsaking Ted Lilly for Kei Igawa; (vii) signing Carl Pavano and Jared Wright instead of Derek Lowe.
Eventually, Cashman, in his defense, realized it was probably more efficient and effective for an organization to cultivate starters from within. Thus, his renewed commitment to the farm system. Nonetheless, Cashman's new philosophy quickly hardened into a rigid dogma.
Of the three pitchers he gambled would renew a Yankee dynasty, he wouldn't relinquish a one. Not even for a proven ace, Not even it enabled him to retain the most promising of the three. So when the opportunity to trade Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez, and Mitch Hilligoss for Johan Santana--- the very ace the Yankees have lacked for 8 years running-- Cashman refused. Thus Cashman forswore not only an ace in the hand for prospects in the bush, he also ensure the pressure they'd face would be enormous.
Integrating one or two rookie pitchers is hard enough on a team where the fans, ownership, and the veteran players expect to qualify for the playoffs every year. Thinking he could integrate three without compromising his team's ability to contend was foolish and arrogant, especially where his hitters were aging and his lineup fielded only two players under 33.
What's more, a fallacy underpinned the GM's logic. Supposedly, Cashman insisted that trading prospects for a player the Yankees then would have to pay like a free-agent would be improvident because it would amount to incurring a tax. The outlay for Santana, plus the sacrifice of cheap prospects he'd have to replace with more expensive players. But this assumes that all the prospects he'd have to surrender would make the major league roster and remain there for the forseeable future and wouldn't demand more expensive replacements anyway. Will Jeff Marquez and Mitch Hilligoss ever become major leaguers? Will the Yankees have to replace Melky in CF, in the end, regardless? Will Hughes develop into a full-fledged starter who can throw 200 Innings and if so, when?
And anyway what of the tax? Did Cashman forget that the Red Sox did precisely this twice: in 1997 when they relinquished Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. for Pedro Martinez and then signed Pedro to a 6-year $75 million contract and then again eight years later, in 2005, in acquiring Josh Beckett, who cost the Red Sox less in money but more in talent.
Alas, not trading for Johan Santana has come back to haunt the GM in more ways than one and not just for 2008, but for the future, too.
We can't fault Cashman for having failed to predict the injury to Wang of course. But Santana certainly would have stabilized the Yankees rotation, providing them 200 innings, and in confining one spot in the rotation to one rookie, rather two, would have alleviated much of the pressure Ian Kennedy suddenly felt to perform and may have deferred Joba's transition to the rotation to later in the season. Kennedy may have performed better; than again, he might not have. But the Yankees, certainly, would enjoyed greater latitude with him as their fifth starter and perhaps enabled him to overcome the inevitable growing pains he's now likely to face again next year.
How much of difference on the Yankees' 2008 performance would Santana have made? A cursory glance at the numbers reveals the Santana's impact would have had. Through 168 innings pitched, Johan Santana has a 2.68 ERA for the New York Mets. Let's make the generous assumption, that in the American League, that would have translated into a full point higher ERA of 3.68. Accordingly, instead of allowing 54 earned runs and 62 total runs, in the American League, Santana would have surrendered 68 earned runs and 76 total runs.
Well, Santana's 168.7 inning roughly approximate the inning totals of Hughes, Rasner, and Ponson combined. So instead of the 100 Earned Runs and 104 total runs these three Yankees starters allowed, substitute instead Santana's totals and the Yankees' runs allowed drops from its current 542 total runs, without him, to 514 with him. Plug the new variable into the Jamesian Pythagorean theorem-- (RS^2 / (RS^2 + RA^ 2))-- and the Yankees current Pythagorean record of 64-57, identical to their actual record incidentally, increases to 67-54.
Only three games, you say? Well, if the Yankees miss the playoffs, how many more games than three do you honestly think will separate them from the wild-card winner? And that's three games, through 121 played, a number only likely to expand as Santana's starts accumulate and his performance improves, as it often does late in the season.
Worse, the Santana effect isn't limited to 2008. Forsaking him will impact the Yankees in 2009 as well. Because Hughes and Kennedy didn't develop this season, and Joba, because of injury, the same innings caps will confine them next year and leave holes in the Yankees rotation. The holes will expand, in fact, because both Mussina and Pettitte are free-agents and even if they do return, can anyone honestly expect Mussina to duplicate his bravura performance in 2009?
Sure, if the Yankees can sign CC Sabathia he would more than compensate for not having a Santana in the rotation. But what makes the Yankees so sure they can? Because they can offer him the most money? After dominating the National League, why wouldn't he want to remain there, perhaps moving to some West Coast NL team, where he's currently building a house or even the Cubs. It's not a risk Cashman should have taken. Because when once every ten years a proven ace who can pitch 200 innings is available, a GM with the means at his disposal seizes the opportunity.
Woe be it unto BC if CC dislikes NY.