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.