Thursday, August 14, 2008

A LONG SEPTEMBER

"A long September and there's reason to believe maybe next year will be better than the last... I guess the losing makes you laugh a little slower. Makes you shout a little lower...

..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.

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