Sunday, July 27, 2008


Since Brian Cashman assumed the title of GM in 1998, the three most distinguished trades of his tenure for position players (that is, non-pitchers), in my estimation, rank as follows:

(i) Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano (February 2004)
(ii) Bobby Abreu (and Corey Lidle) for CJ Henry, Matt Smith, Jesus Sanchez, and Carlos Monstrios (July 2006); and
(iii) David Justice for Ricky Ledee, Jake Westbrook, and Zach Day (June 2000)

Sure, the trade Cashman completed last night for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte in exchange for Ross Ohlendorf, Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, and Dan McCutchen warrants celebrating.

Cashman overcame the farm fetish that has plagued his judgment over the last year-- as manifest in his decision to forsake first Santana and more recently, Sabathia-- and relinquished promising prospects for two major-league players who immediately improve their major league roster's depth, flexibility, and talent.

That being said, the trade ranks no better than fourth among the foregoing three.

Yes, the Yankees satisfied their desperate need for another productive hitter that arose with Posada and Matsui's injuries. (It shouldn't surprise anyone that once the trade deadline expires, the Yankees suddenly announce that both will undergo surgery that ends their seasons.)

The bottom third of the lineup Girardi has had to field recently of Melky, Molina, and Gardner only has underscored how woeful the Yankees' lineup has become. And by replacing Gardner's paltry production with a right-handed bat capable of league-average or better production, Xavier Nady should improve their run production and add balance to their lineup immediately. (Nady has played both corner outfield positions adeptly in addition to having seen time at 1B and in CF.)

However, Nady, his production this year notwithstanding, hardly qualifies as the premiere hitter either Justice or Abreu were in 2000 and 2006, respectively, to say nothing, of course, of Rabbi Alex.

Indeed, his rather prolific statistics in 2008 (.330/.383/.535 with 13 HRs, 26 2Bs, and 57 RBIs) represent something of an aberration. Nady's career statistical splits are .281/.337/.456 and in six profession seasons before this year, not once did Nady post an on-base percentage above .337 or a slugging percentage over .476.

Contrast these statistics with Abreu's in 2006, a player who until then, consistently walked over 100 times a year and had an on-base percentage over .393 for 8 consecutive years-- every year, that is, since he became an everday outfielder. In addition, Abreu's career slugging percentage exceeded in 2006, and still exceeds, Nady's .456 number.

Nor for that matter is Nady the established hitter Justice was in 2000 either. With minor exception, Justice posted over a .900 OPS (Slugging + OBA) almost every year he played a full season.

In other words, to have matched his previous coups in obtaining Abreu and Justice and to compensate fully for the lost production Matsui and Posada's injuries entail, Cashman would had to acquire a hitter like the Pirates' other corner outfielder, Jason Bay or perhaps, Mark Teixiera.

Of course, Cashman, in this latest deal, also obtained in Damaso Marte, a pitcher the organization has slavered over for years and the lefty-handed reliever Joe Girardi has insisted is a necessity. Given the bullpen's recent performance, however, I'm not sure I agree with him. A left-handed reliever of Marte's caliber strikes me less as a necessity than a luxury at the moment.

Left-handed batters actually have a lower batting average (.183) against Jose Veras than right-handed batters (.238) in an almost equivalent number of plate appearances. And the splits of right-handed and left-handed batters against Edwar Ramirez don't differ materially either .156 (RHs) vs. .176 against (LHs).

(In fact, in his persistent decision to play inferior right-handed lineups against left-handed pitchers, I often wonder, whether Girardi hasn't become overly enamored with the "match-up" tactic in circumstances where it isn't always warranted.)

As Joe Torre often observed, proficient relievers, regardless of from what side they throw, can retire any hitter, lefty or righty.

As for the price Cashman had to pay? Naturally, it's still too early to judge. Ricky Ledee, for instance, was the centerpiece of the Justice trade, but Jake Westbrook, in the end, developed into the more profitable dividend. Still, it appears Cashman, at the very least, yielded more than he did for Abreu. (Although with good reason: the Phillies, in Abreu's case, were eager to rid themselves of the salary.) In contrast, Ohlendorf and Tabata, each, have shown signs of the potential to develop into viable or even superior major league talents. Meanwhile Dan McCutchen recently has skyrocketed through the Yankees farm system and to many, had surpassed Alan Horne and Jeff Marquez on the organizational depth chart. (McCutchen, indeed, might have been there all along had he not neglected to inform the Yankees he takes physician-prescribed Adderall for ADHD and not earned a suspension for it after testing positive for stimulants. Evidently, McCutchen has since received medical clearance to take the drug.)

In sum, Cashman deserves praise for improving his major league roster and with it, the Yankees' ability to contend for a playoff spot this season. What's more, to do so, he surrendered four players, whatever potential they possess, unlikely to help their major league club this year.

However, two misgivings, apart from those expressed above, prevent me from giving this trade an unqualified and resounding endorsement.

First of all, the Yankee farm system's greatest weakness is a deficiency in premiere hitting prospects. And Tabata, along with Austin Jackson and Jesus Montero, numbered among their top three. Accordingly, with the Yankees' corner outfielders all over 33, and Melky Cabrera increasingly demonstrating himself little more than a fourth outfielder, I would have felt far more confident about relinquishing Tabata had the Yankees acquired Pirates' outfielder Jason Bay instead. Bay has more power, a higher career on-base percentage, and slugging percentage than Nady, and has averaged more pitches per plate appearance over his career. Bay also is signed through 2009.

I recognize the Yankees would not have received Marte in such package -- but to my mind Marte's a luxury with Bruney returning and the farm system deep in middle-relievers. And in the long-run, Bay would have been better served the Yankees as a future left-fielder than the less prolific Nady as a prospective one in right.

Which brings me to my second qualm about the deal. In his analysis of it, Newsday's Ken Davidoff writes "Nady, as long as he performs capably over the next two months, should be the Yankees' starting rightfielder in 2009, allowing the club to bid farewell to Bobby Abreu.",0,380684.column

If the Yankees are indeed planning to act as such, I submit they would be making a major error. Xavier Nady, if perhaps minor improvement over Abreu defensively (and I'm not sure he is), certainly cannot replace Abreu's production as the Yankees 'three-hitter,' not even in Abreu's last two sub-par seasons. No, I concede, Abreu, recently, hasn't shown the same proficiency he exhibited in his first half-season with the Yankees, but his 4.3 P/PA at-bat and .BA with two-strikes, two important qualities in a hitter preceding A-Rod in the lineup, is still beyond compare, as is his speed. Accordingly, if the Yankees can re-sign Bobby for a year or two at less than the $16 million annually they currently pay him-- and by all reports, Abreu wants to return-- they should.

For if the Yankees think they can replace Abreu's spot in the lineup with Xavier Nady or Robinson Cano, for that matter, they're seriously deluding themselves. I only hope my good friend, Ken, is wrong this one time because I can't think of a worthy replacement for Abreu among next year's free-agents either. Mark Teixiera, perhaps, the one palatable alternative, is a Boras client and would cost the Yankees another Giambi-like contract-- money better spent in trying to allure CC Sabathia to the Bronx.

So let's give Cashman his due-- no deal comes easily and his farm restoration project enabled this one. However, he hardly merits canonization for this deal either.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Once upon a time the New Yankees lived a profligates' life. They spent freely. They squandered prospects. They mortgaged the farm to pay for overpriced but reliably proficient talent. Then one day in November 2005 Brian Cashman inherited the earth; or rather, he assumed the mantle of GM, in both title and prerogatives, of the most valuable sports franchise on earth. But at the time, although the New York Yankees’ payroll exceeded $200 million dollars and fielded a team of all-stars, something was amiss.

To be sure, fans flocked to the Bronx in record number and ticket prices soared and unprecedented attendance figures fed a revenue bonanza that financed dreams of a new stadium to reap millions more.

However, brilliant spectacle merely hid a rotting foundation. The Yankees weren’t winning and worse, they weren’t poised to win in the future either. The dynasty of the 1990’s had been bought at the price of a mortgaged farm system. And finally, in a post-10/20 world—that day in 2004 that shall live in infamy-- the bill had come due. Johnny Damon’s grand slam had reduced magic and mystique to a distant, receding memory.

So Brian Cashman changed all that. Brian Cashman's Yankees found religion. They stinted. They forbore. They saved. They husbanded. They stole an idea from the Boston Arrivistes and they invested in and hoarded amateur talent. Only more recently, amid the praise for the farm system Brian Cashman has replenished in three short years loom disturbing questions. Recent decisions of the Yankees GM make me, among other Yankee fans, wonder whether Brian Cashman, like Pygmalion, hasn’t fallen in love with own creation.

For twice now in six months Brian Cashman's Yankees have encountered the rarest of opportunities to improve their fortunes, immediately and dramatically. And twice now in six months the Yankees have forsaken them.

Once again, a low-rent Midwestern franchise, unable to pay its bills, auctioned off the Crown-Jewel of Baseball-- that rare precious commodity, the proven, left-handed ace in his prime. And once again, rather than buy, Brian Cashman went window-shopping instead-- sauntering past the display case to admire the splendor and to gawk at the price, only to return home with the currency he's saved lining his pockets.

In January, Cashman balked at the combined cost of relinquishing Phil Hughes (and Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez, Mitch Hiligoss) and signing Johan Santana to a long-term contract.

In July, Cashman balked at the combined cost of relinquishing Phil Hughes and NOT being able to sign CC Sabathia to a long-term contract. (The New York Times' Tyler Kepner and Jack Curry report Cashman was unwilling to deal with the Indians unless they granted the Yankees the kind of negotiating window the Twins gave the Mets.)

How to account for the seeming contradiction? Well, perhaps, Brian Cashman simply refuses to trade Phil Hughes. That despite Phil Hughes' susceptibility to injury, that despite Phil Hughes' baffling inconsistency, that despite Phil Hughes all too brief flourishes of brilliance, he is too precious and rare a talent with which Brian Cashman can bear to part.

Another explanation exists of course, but it's less charitable and for Yankee fans, more ominous. Perhaps, in that rare unguarded moment this off-season, Cashman confessed the truth to The New York Post when he said about his young prospects “he'd grown attached to them.” Indeed, perhaps, too attached. So attached, in fact, he no longer can appraise their value rationally.

Because with major injuries claiming his best starting pitcher and sidelining two of his best hitters, in left-field and at DH, for perhaps a month or longer; with the AL East more competitive than in recent memory and the prospect of his team missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years as real and as dire as ever; Cashman’s recent forbearance begs a disturbing question: has stocking the farm system with young, promising talent become for him an end in itself?

Is Brian Cashman's objective to achieve self-sufficiency? Is no major league player ever worth the price of even one premiere prospect? If not for Johan Santana or for CC Sabathia, then for whom? And if not now, when? Or is it only worth the price only when Cashman can acquire a player in a salary dump for the likes of CJ Henry and Matt Smith as he did with Bobby Abreu?

After all, isn’t one of the purposes of having a farm system abounding with young talent the luxury it provides to fill a hole on the major league roster when necessary, to acquire that indispensable player at the trade deadline when injury fells a critical player? The luxury that enables a GM to cultivate and retain some prospects and to trade others because many never will fulfill their promise.

Has Brian Cashman, then, steered the Yankees from one extreme on the continuum to the other, from a prodigal team that neglects its farm system and ignores its future to one that clings to it irrationally and esteems it as an end in itself?

One shouldn't so easily dismiss the idea. Remember, Cashman came of age in the mid-1980s as a Yankees intern when The Boss was busy undermining his GMs and frittering away his best prospects, trading Jose Rijo, Jay Howell, Erick Plunk, et. al for Rickey Henderson, Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden, Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield, and in now infamous Seinfeld lore, swapping Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps.

Cashman’s reaction may be understandable. For a thin line separates the convert from the zealot, principle from dogma, and “attachment” for fetish. But that hardly exonerates him for crossing it.

And how else to regard a General Manager’s judgment when he leaves the impression that through the dog-days of July and August, he think his team can contend for the playoffs with Darrel Rasner and Sidney Ponson as its fourth and fifth starters? Or has Cashman deluded himself that Ian Kennedy and Alfredo Aceves are adequate substitutes if Rasner and Ponson falter?

Or is that he actually believes, despite his protests to the contrary, that Phil Hughes or Chien Ming-Wang or god forbid, Carl Pavano, will heal miraculously and ride in on a white-horse to save the season?

Or is the explanation more perverse still? Perhaps, Cashman is well aware of his rotation’s inadequacy but it’s a cost he’s willing to incur to protect his beloved farm even if it means missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Even if it means another season will have elapsed without a championship as an aging nucleus nears its end. For make no mistake about it, a lineup fielding 7 of 9 hitters who turn 33 or older slouches toward regression. And really, how many more years can the Yankees indispensable player, their Roy Hobbs of closers, play above his game?

You see, as much as radicals, reactionaries gamble too. They gamble with time. By turning back the clock, they risk the wrath of the Fates of Age. For once Posada, Rivera, Giambi, Abreu, and perhaps, the immortal himself, Jeter, perform no better than the statistical mean, all the Phil Hughes and Jobas and Ian Kennedys won't matter one iota. Without a Hall of Fame closer or a prolific catcher, with a lineup in which only A-Rod and Cano can still hit, the Yankees will have morphed into a more expensive version of the Blue Jays.

Meanwhile, the AL East center of gravity, with Youklis, Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Moss; Crawford, Upton, Longoria, Navvaro, will have migrated to Tampa and Boston.

And for dreams of another championship in the Bronx, it will be too late.