Friday, February 29, 2008

GM PRIDE & PREJUDICE: FOUR MORE YEARS?

It seems fitting that while the nation undergoes its quatra-annual ritual of selecting a President, America's most venerable sports franchise should be pondering the fate of its Chief Executive as well. Brian Cashman's contract expires at the end of the year, and Hank Steinbrenner's recent comments about his front-office, ranging from veiled criticism to tepid praise, have hardly clarified the Yankees' public position on the future of their GM.

So does the Yankees GM deserve four more years? Or perhaps, the more relevant question is whether Brian Cashman qualifies as the man best suited to steward the franchise into the next decade. A question, I regret, I can only respond to with decided ambivalnce.

The principal obstacle to answering it, an insurmountable one perhaps, is that no ready alternative comes to mind, apart from Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees amateur scouting director, who reporters have characterized as everything from an unsung genius, for drafting Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy (if not for also selecting CJ Henry in the first-round the previous year), to a truckling opportunist with, in Bill Madden's words, "designs on inheriting the earth."

Indeed, with a family as capricious and autocratic as the Steibrenners, one always has to fear cronyism, nepotism, and servility will prevail over merit. George's "Kitchen Cabinet" in Tampa, after all, bled the franchise once already. A recrudescence, now, could suffocate the body Cashman has restored while still in its infancy.

Still, this last year, beginning with his refusal to acknowledge the folly of hiring Marty Miller, continuing through his recent public criticism of Bernie Williams and Joe Torre, and ending with his eschewal of Johan Santana, Cashman's decisions only have underlined the dubious side of the GM's record and raised the question whether 10 years inside the Yankees crucible hasn't begun to distort his judgment.

CASH, THE DELIVERER
As this blog has argued before ("In Cash We Trust," 01/12/08) Cashman's greatest contribution to the franchise, exceeding in signficance even his dramatic improvement of the Yankees' farm system from a league worst to one of its best in three short years, is his modernization of its management structure and its governing philosophy-- how the franchise divides responsibility and how it identifies and values talent.

But it is precisely this visionary quality to what Cashman has accomplished that brings to mind the ancient parable's wisdom about the foibles of prophets. The man with the vision of the Promised Land, that is, isn't always the one best equipped to lead his people there. Why? Because the fervor and tenacity he needs to break with conventional wisdom, to transform customs and habits consecrated by age, and to persuade his people to trust his vision so easily hardens into a myopic, rigid dogma over years spent exhorting, prodding, and badgering them to see the Light.

Indeed, Cashman had to rebuff Tampa's interference and opposition for seven years before he he could wrest the power and authority most GM's inherit with the title. Then, once he did so, once he enacted his plan, subordinating the Tampa faction, revamping his scouting department, and re-investing in the amateur draft and then clinging to the prospects reaped from it, the Steinbrenners hardly repaid him with gratitude and affirmation. During the Yankees early season doldrums last season, the Boss himself warned that the GM was on "a big hook". And Boss Jr, following in his father's footsteps, already has threatened reprisals should the Yankees' decision to forgo Johan Santana return to haunt them.

It should surprise no one, then, if all the resistance Cashman has had to overcome to wean the Yankees from free-agent dependency, if all the internal pressure to trade prospects that he has had to deflect-- if all of the stubborn tenacity he had to muster now prevents him from seeing the farm system he has built with the dispassionate, rational insight his job requires of him.

Indeed, his peremptory rejection of the Twins' eleventh-hour trade proposals for Johan Santana--one, according to Bob Klapisch, of Ian Kenndy, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Marquez; another, according, to Kevin Kiernan, that excluded the Big Three entirely-- should make us wonder whether Cashman has developed an irrational fetish for his own creation.

Witness his comments to The New York Post this winter about the Yankees prospects: "I'm definitely fully invested in a lot of young talent. You get attached to it." Has he forgotten that the cultivation and retention of young pitching isn't an end in itself but merely a component part in the overall scheme for winning?

FORGOING SANTANA: CASHMAN'S VANITY PROJECT?
A few other less charitable explanations for Cashman's decision to forsake Santana have circulated however. Michael Kay has bandied one that has gained adherents. Kay insinuates that Cashman refused to trade his young pitching prospects because they're cheap and the Yankees GM wants to prove he's smart enough to win without relying about sport's largest payroll. Now, while the arrogance and corruption of power never ceases to amaze me, I nonetheless have a difficult time accepting Kay's hypothesis. It strikes me as both too transparently simple and too ruthlessly narcisistic. That Cashman would place his own reputation above the franchise's best interest doesn't square with his public persona nor does a man interested exclusively in his reputation and advancement endure the public recrimination, aggravation, and second-guessing that attends upon running the Yankees or suffer the Steinbrenner for 10-years. There are far easier ways for Cashman to prove his brilliance.

in any case, vanity and hubris, typically, afflict executives-- from Presidents to CEOs to GMs-- in far more subtle and insidious ways. It's when they believe that they act with the most noble and self-sacrificing purposes-- as in exporting Yankee democracy or restoring a Yankee dynasty-- that pride, more often, brings miscalculation and ruin.

I prefer accordingly the theory that Cashman simply has become overinvested emotionally in the farm system he built, a pitfall into which artist and visionaries often slip-- falling in love with their own creations, pace Pygmalion's infatuation with Galatea. Ego and object merge. Creation becomes fetish. Rational appraisal surrenders to irrational prejudice. And Cashman mistakes uncertain potential for established talent.

A corollary to which would attribute to Cashman the classic tragic flaw of the General who fights the last war. Having watched as the legion of established pitchers Cashman acquired arrive in NY with great fanfare only to flounder (Weaver, Vasquez, Contreras, Brown, Pavano, The Unit), Cashman derives from the result the obvious strategy. Avoid the Trojan Horse. Eschew opponents' pitcher; Cultivate your own.

Only as Generals often learn too late, every war is sui generis and the tactics of past battles may ill serve future ones. So too, Cashman, I fear, may soon discover about Santana. For the chance to acquire the premiere pitcher in baseball, while he is still only 29 years of age, is one of those unprecedented, sui generis opportunities that presents itself once a decade. The relevant comparison, then, is not the Yankees acquisition of Brown, RJ, Vasquez, or Pavano. The relevant parallel is the Red Sox' trade for Pedro Martinez.

SANTANA'S PRICE: THE FLAWS OF ECONOMIC ANALYSIS
In fact, irrational bias can plague the economist and actuary as often as the general.

Consider Cashman's reluctance to committ to Santana, reportedly because of the financial cost.

Vincent Genarro, author of Diamond Dollars and informat advisor to the Cleveland Indians, examined the Santana trade through an economists' prism, applying business school models that GMs, evidently, increasingly utilize and that Cashman, reportedly, often adopts as well. (http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slug=ys-gennarosantanafinal011808) And Buster Olney reported that the Yankees' front office recoiled at the contract Santana demanded for many of the same reasons Genarro elaborates.

Genarro's logic, at least as I understand it, begins from the following premise: relinquishing young prospects for Santana, in addition, to paying him the $137 million contract he sought is tantamount to paying a tarriff. The Yankees pay twice: (i) $22 million a year for Santana and (ii) a surchage for yielding Hughes or IPK, quantified as the salary difference between (Hughes/IPK's replacement - Hughes/IPK himself).

In this view, the tarriff increases the price of Santana's $137million contract above and beyond whatever revenue Santana possibly could earn them by securing the Yankees a playoff spot and in the best scenario, a World Series. Supposedly, Cashman, for this very reason, opposed any deal for Johan Santana that would have necessitated yielding prospects, any prospects, whether or not named Hughes or Kennedy, regardless of their talent or promise.

Only the foregoing equation contains far too many unreasonable assumptions to be dispositive.

It either excludes variables it should consider or assigns higher or lower values to them than warranted.

For example, how does one assign a value to the glory of a World Series ring? George and Hank would tell you the trophy exceeds in value the added broadcast and gate revenue it earns. But beyond the fallacy of assuming one can quantify winning, there's another ulitarian bias at work as well. One that evokes Lenin's metaphor about the omlette justifying the broken eggs. The assemblage of a winning baseball team, after all, isn't like the production of widgets. The players aren't just a production cost; unlike assembly line workers, baseball player consist as much in the output as in the input. Wages or profit-sharing alone doesn't satisfy them Like the owners, players have an unquantifiable emotional stake in winning, their finished product. Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, to illustrate, won't care if retaining Hughes and IPK earns the Yankees multiple championships five years from and with a cheaper payroll besides. By then, they'll have retired and their celebrity will have dimmed. They want to win NOW. And with the age of the Yankees' position players, who can blame them.

THE COST OF FORSAKING SANTANA
What Cashman and Gennaro fail to consider, then, is the countervailing risk the Yankees have incurred by NOT acquiring Santana. One cannot calculate the financial cost of Hughes, Kennedy, or some group of prospects in a vaccum or static context.

One has to consider the following factors as well:

1) Hughes will accompany Kennedy and Chamberlain to comprise 60% of a starting rotation of untested rookies whose a) statistics we can't project accurately and b) whose innings the Yankees will limit to a high of approximately 185 innings for Kennedy and to a low of approximately 140 for Chamberlain. If Wang and Pettitte stay healthy and contribute 200 innings, Yankees starters would amass approximately 880 innings. And if we assume 6 innings per start (a liberal assumption because in 2007, Yankee starters only averaged 5.5 innings per game), the Yankees would still have to accrue another 100 innings or so, representing 16 starts, from Mussina, Igawa, Rasner, and Karstens. 16 games is considerable a league as highly competitive as the AL has become.

2) That the Yankees roster is old and that aging stars like 38-yr-old Rivera, 36-yr-old Posada; 33 and 34-yr-old Jeter, Damon, Abreu, and Matsui; even 32-yr-old A-Rod don't have many prolific seasons left before their production regresses, if the decline hasn't begun already. The window they have to win another championship is a narrow one. These aging veterans can't afford to squander a season or more while their fledgling starters build their stamina and mature.

3) That each year the American League becomes more competitive with more teams contending for the playoffs; that the Yankees current financial model is anchored on qualifying for the post-season; and that the Yankees' two prinicipal competitors for the wild-card last year, the Tigers and the Mariners, dramatically improved this off-season.

Meanwhile, with exception of Baltimore, each of the division rivals the Yankees play 18-19 times a season will be better as well. Toronto, if healthy, has the best pitching staff, 1-12 in the division, if not the league. On the hand, many predict Tampa, with the acqusition of Garza, Percival, and Bartlett, the addition of Evan Longoria and the promotion of their young pitchers, could win 75-80 games. And Boston, a team already two games better than the Yankees, is poised to improve as much as the Yankees, if not more, with Ellsbury, Bucholz, and Lester each contributing full seasons and Dice-K, gaining another year of seasoning.

4) That if Cashman is correct and pitchers like Santana don't reach free-agency in their prime anymore, the Yankees may have forsaken their last best hope of guaranteeing themselves one. When's the next time the Yankees will have the opportunity to acquire the best pitcher, while still in his prime, if the Elite 3 suffer injuries or don't fulfill their promise? Does Sabbathia really rival Santana?


THE PERILS OF YOUTH
Even if Cashman is correct and all three of his wunderkind evolve into celebrated pitchers, the past performance of great pitchers in their first year doesn't bode well for the Yankees.

Just look at the statistics of the some of the modern era's greats when in their early 20's during their first year in the major leagues.

1984 Roger Clemens (Age 21)---------133.3 IPs, 4.32 ERA, 1.31 WHIP
1987 Greg Maddux (Age 21)---------- 155.7 IPs, 5.61 ERA, 1.64 WHIP
1987 Tom Glavine (Age 22)-----------195 IPs, 4.56 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
2000 Roy Halliday (Age 23)------------67.7IPs, 10.64 ERA, 2.20 WHIP
2000 Brad Penny (Age 22)------------119.7IPs, 4.81 ERA, 1.50 WHIP
2001 CC Sabathia(Age 20)------------180.3IPs, 4.39 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
2002 Jake Peavy (Age 21)-------------97.7 IPs, 4.53 ERA, 1.43 WHIP
2002 Josh Beckett(Age 22)-----------107.7IPs, 4.10 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
2003 Dan Haren (Age 22)-------------72. 7IPs, 5.08 ERA, 1.46 WHIP
2004 Eric Bedard (age 25)------------137.3IPs, 4.59 ERA, 1.60 WHIP


With this history, I can't envision the Yankees qualifying for the playoffs, let alone winning a World Series.

In which case, this fans' ambivalence about Brian Cashman won't matter one iota. Come November, rest assured, Randy Levine will appear from behind his curtain to announce yet another purge.

2 comments:

Mark Serio said...

That's far and away the best written article I've read on the topic. Keep up the incredibly strong work.

Matthew S Schweber said...

Thanks Mark, I always welcome the encouragement.