Saturday, January 12, 2008


(Pete Abraham, the Yankees' beat reporter for The Journal News, ran an abridged version of the piece below on his blog on January 11, 2008. Much thanks to Pete for the opportunity)

February 4, 2008, will mark the 10th year of Brian Cashman’s tenure as the Yankees’ General Manager, the longest period anyone has held the position in the Steinbrenner era, in itself an accomplishment. With celebration however anniversaries also invite reassessment. Accordingly, the milestone begs an appraisal of Cashman’s record.

The first problem, of course, is how. In business, labor and management, for better or worse, bow to the same arbiter—the profit margin. In baseball, however, the very numbers that are a GM’s lifeblood offer no reliable, objective index of his proficiency, only his players’. The most obvious index, his team’s wins and losses, owes to too many variables beyond his control-- payroll, injuries, meddlesome owners, a manager’s folly, the vagaries of players’ production, and sheer luck — to gauge his performance by this measure alone.

Two further complications bedevil the task of evaluating Cashman. First of all, he has benefited from the foundation of young, championship-caliber players his two predecessors Gene Michael and Bob Watson assembled. The core of whom, Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera, even today, underpin the Yankees’ success. Secondly, Cashman bore the title of GM in name only through his first eight years, not assuming the position’s full power and authority until November 2005.

Still, Cashman has stamped his signature on enough of the organization’s management structure, personnel, and philosophy to suggest an informed, if hardly definitive, assessment. A record, I judge, in sum, an equivocal one: far less prodigious than the genius, for example, regularly credits him with; but far more able and momentous than the incompetence Mike Pagliarulo’s crude tract smeared him with last year.

No place is this checkered ledger more evident than the Yankees’ major league roster. Where a history of shrewd position-player acquisitions have secured and fortified the dynastic foundation Cashman inherited while a disastrous succession of inept, aged, and frail pitchers have squandered and undermined it. Compare Justice, Ventura, Olerud, Matsui, A-Rod, Damon, and Abreu, on one side, with Weaver, Karsay, Brown, Vasquez, Contreras, Wright, Pavano, Farnsworth, and Igawa, on the other. Even the exceptions, largely, prove the rule. George and his Tampa cronies account for the Mondesi, Wommack, and Giambi acquisitions, on the one side, and propelled the Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens’ signing, on the other. And if we can quibble with wisdom of some of the above acquisitions, or even who accounted for them, the overall pattern speaks for itself: ├ęclat with position-players, folly on pitchers.

Now, in Cashman’s defense, a neglected, depleted farm system and a bear free-agent pitcher market often confined his options to overpriced starters and regressing veterans. And to his credit he recognized why. In a sport flush with cash, beholden to new revenue sharing arrangements, and plagued by a scarcity of pitching talent, only the rare preeminent starter reached free-agency while still in his prime. Even small-market teams jealously guarded their proven pitching talent. They began to sign their best starters to cheaper, long-term contracts before they qualified for arbitration, enabling them, as such, to hold on to their pitchers for two or three years past their free agent eligibility.

Witness Dan Haren’s contract with Oakland. Haren would have attained the six years of service free-agency requires after the 2008 season. But in 2005, the A’s signed him to an extension through 2009, with a 2010 club option, besides. Apart from enabling them to retain Haren longer, the A’s increases his trade value. This explains why Haren commanded four highly rated Diamonbacks prospects when Twins’ GM can’t seem to obtain more than two for Johan Santana. Haren, now, likely won’t reach free-agency until, at the very earliest, he’s 30.

The lesson Cashman learned from all of this is that the Yankees had to return to drafting and cultivating their own pitchers. Their woefully deficient farm system hadn’t produced a starting pitcher since Andy Pettitte in 1995. But once granted full authority in 2005, Cashman remedied the deficiency with considerable dispatch. In just three years, his infusion of premiere, minor-league pitching talent raised the Yankees organizational ranking from 27th in 2004 to 5th in 2007 in Baseball America’s annual survey.

Yet how Cashman accomplished this feat will leave perhaps a more enduring legacy on the franchise than will even the players themselves. He streamlined the management structure, reasserting his supremacy, clarifying executives’ domains, reconciling the Tampa and New York factions, and restoring accountability. Next, he dismissed scouts, hired new cross-checkers, and re-invested money and manpower in the amateur draft. And finally, he expanded the use of quantitative analysis to vet prospects, to identify unsung talent, and to preempt subjective, scouting reports, plagued by human bias, with empirically verifiable data. Enter Moneyball; Exit Prodigal George.

Some of Cashman’s recent comments, however, raise worrisome questions. Has he, like the sculptor Pygmalion, fallen in love with his own creation? The Daily News’ Bill Madden reported, during the Winter Meetings, that Cashman rebuffed an offer of Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez and Mitch Hiligoss for Johan Santana. “"I'm definitely fully invested in a lot of young talent. You get attached to it," Cashman said. Raising the question: has the GM succumbed to the very irrational bias he embraced sabermetrics to curb and proceeded to overvalue Hughes, among others? Economists would call the “attachment to Hughes” Cashman revealed his “endowment bias”— peoples’ tendency to demand more to sell what we possess than what we’d pay to buy it.

Would Cashman value Hughes equivalently were he another team’s prospect? Why, for example, do the Yankees alone seem to project Hughes a can’t-miss, bona-fide ace? Former Blue Jays’ Assistant GM Keith Law regards him no better than a #2 starter.

But more importantly, is Hughes so valuable that he’s worth the price of forgoing Johan Santana? Santana, after all, already is a bona-fide ace, if not the best pitcher in baseball, and pitcher, moreover, capable of giving the Yankees 200 innings the following two seasons. (Whereas Hughes won’t contribute more than about 150 to 170 innings the next two years; that is, if the Yankees honor their professed plan to cap his innings.)

An organization that once mortgaged its future, and bartered away all its young talent-- now that they abound with prospects-- runs the risk of overcompensating and idealizing them. The latter danger Cashman risks is especially prevalent because so many aging superstars compose the Yankees major league roster. How many more prolific years do a 38-yr-old Rivera, a 36-yr-old Posada, a 33 and 32 yr-old Jeter and A-Rod really have left? (And though teeming with young pitching, a recent Baseball America podcast identified the Yankees farm system as having scant hitting talent.) Yet Cashman, nonetheless, plans to entrust 60% of his pitching 2008 rotation to three unproven, rookies with inning caps. Does an aging Yankee lineup, where only two hitters, Cano and Melky, are under 30, have the luxury to wait for them to ripen?

Given Cashman’s history on pitchers, I wish I could say I trusted his judgment. I wish I could say I agreed with his decision to forego both the best pitcher in baseball while still in his prime and with it, the Yankees best chance to overtake the Red Sox next year. But on the future of Hughes and the fate of Santana will hinge the final reckoning.

1 comment:

Nate said...

Great work on getting the guest blogger for Pete Abe keep up the good work

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