You have to admire Brian Cashman. Even when he's wrong, he's right. At least in his eyes, anyway.
Indeed, it takes a certain genius to stare folly in the face and call it wisdom. Or in that rare instance, when failure allows for no other conclusion, to remain utterly convinced that the cause lies elsewhere than one's own judgment. It's a gift, perhaps, all Chief Executives possess. At the very least it's something the Bronx, at the moment, shares in common with Washington.
Sure, Cashman pays lip service to accountability. He hasn't held his job for longer than any man before him without being shrewd and wily and resilient enough to know that the infrequent but opportune mea culpa comes with the title. Two humiliating losses to the Red Sox with the season on the brink occasioned his latest.
"If anything, you're starting to see the necessity of [why] you have to get younger ... We've had some injuries, there's no doubt about it, but we've got some key guys who haven't performed like they're capable of. Is that because of age? I think we have extremely talented players. I've put together a club that is where it's at. I'm responsible for that ... I think Girardi's done a tremendous job given what's occurred," Cashman said. "The buck stops right here with me.”
Or does it? For all Cashman's expressed fondness for Harry Truman, the fine print tells another story.
Parsing the comments reveals Cashman didn't concede any error at all-- not in the manager he hired ("a tremendous job"), not in the team he assembled ("extremely talented"), not in his performance or decisions ("some key guys haven't performed") and certainly not in the notorious off-season trade he foreclosed.
As usual, Newsday's Ken Davidoff exposed the truth of the matter. Did Cashman regret forsaking, not once, but twice, in the past year, the chance to acquire the most precious commodity in baseball-- the proven, under 30-year-old left-handed ace the Yankees have coveted since, oh, the days of Ron Guidry, say? Not in the least.
"I feel a strong reluctance to trade three or four assets to another team [for a player] and then sign him to a multiyear contract," Cashman said, "You trade for a guy, give up three or four assets [and then pay him], then you've crushed your payroll and your assets at the same time." http://www.newsday.com/sports/baseball/yankees/ny-spken295821183aug29,0,6550246.column
"Assets": a Cashman shibboleth, it would seem, along with "the process." For the word has become a recurring theme in the self-justification that underlies the GM's pretense to accountability.
RETENTION FETISHES AND BLIND SPOTS
Bob Klapisch's latest article for ESPN relates an amusing and very telling anecdote about how Cashman actually regards his decision.
Apparently, a disgruntled fan somehow uncovered Cashman's E-mail address and sent a note at which Brian bridled. "You're no Theo Epstein," it read and went on to criticize Theo's counterpart for deciding to re-sign Andy Pettitte instead of acquiring Johan Santana.
Never mind that the choice the anonymous writer posed between Pettitte and Santana surrenders half the argument. The Yankees could had both and never intimated to the contrary. They continued to discuss trade proposals with the Twins even after they re-signed Pettitte. No, the choice was not between Santana or Pettitte but between Santana or Hughes-- Hughes, that is, and Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez, and Mitch Hilligoss. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/2007/12/05/2007-12-05_brian_cashman_yanks_balk_at_millions_and.html
The writer's flawed logic, notwithstanding, credit him this much: he worried Cashman's greatest insecurity sufficiently to incite a response.
"We signed Pettitte and kept our other assets," Cashman fired back; "I'm sorry you were led to believe otherwise."
Notice, again, Brian's fixation on "assets" as though accumulating and retaining prospects were an end in itself rather than a means to improving the team's major league roster.
Memo to Brian: "assets" are only worth "keeping" if they hold their value or appreciate. On the other hand, when their value plummets and the opportunity to sell them at a premium is lost, assets no longer remain assets. They become liabilities.
Indeed, Phil Hughes' stock along with Melky Cabrera's, Jeff Marquez', and Ian Kennedy's (another jewel of the farm system, supposedly) all have depreciated this year. And the established ace that can throw 200 innings and that can anchor the rotation has eluded the Yankees once again and has consigned another promising season to a tragic ending. Only this year it arrived one month early.
What's so problematic, however, is not that Brian Cashman made the wrong decision. After all, the error only appears self-evident in hindsight. Cashman's position on Santana was arguable, if not exactly sound, at the time he advanced it. No, what's so problematic about it is that the GM still defends his folly, adamantly so, in fact, and for the wrong reasons. He doesn't concede that his decision looks misguided only if you narrow the horizon to this year alone. No, Brian kept his "assets", he writes, case closed. Does he actually believe this fact alone wins the argument?
"If you choose to play in that [free-agent] marketplace, the one thing you'd be sacrificing is a draft pick," Cashman told Ken Davidoff. "We're very protective of our draft picks, but for the right player and the right circumstance ... I've always said we're still big-game hunters."
But what if that game don't hunt, to borrow a Clintonism. What if the ace you could have had via trade isn't available to the Yankees via the free-agency because he'd prefer to play elsewhere? (As Sabathia already has disclosed, he favors the West Coast and the National League.)
That is, what if a player of Santana's, Sabathia's, or Pedro Martinez's caliber is so rare that he becomes available once or twice a decade and only through trading one's "assets" and signing him to a long-term deal besides? Does Brian actually believe that it's never wise to trade one or more premium "assets" whose value is impossible to project in exchange for a precious and proven commodity. How utterly foolish!
Is Theo a better GM than Brian? My answer ranges somewhere between ignorance and indifference: I don't know and I don't care.
But Cashman's correspondent was correct in this respect and about this I know and I care profoundly. The Red Sox, twice in the past decade, have done precisely what Cashman claims shouldn't be done and in both instances, they were better for it: they've traded "assets" for an ace and then signed said ace to a long-term contract.
In 1997, the Red Sox traded Carl Pavano (don't you love the irony?) and Tony Armas Jr. for Pedro Martinez and proceeded to make him the then highest-paid pitcher in baseball. They gave him an unprecedented 6-year, $75 million contract. And almost overnight, the team's fortunes underwent a dramatic reversal. After finishing fourth the year before, the Red Sox, in Martinez's first year, qualified for the playoffs, and finished second or better every year Pedro pitched for them, thereafter.
Eight year later, Theo, himself, rehearsed the feat. The Red Sox traded four "assets", including Henley Ramirez and Anibel Sanchez, for Josh Beckett and then signed him to a 4-year $42 million extension plus an additional $18 million they had to assume in Mike Lowell's contract.
But whether Cashman is or is not a better GM than Theo doesn't trouble me. Why the GM of the team in which I have invested "assets" more precious than money-- my heart, my time, and my loyalty-- why he has so persistently erred in his evaluation of starting pitchers does trouble me however. More so, it troubles me that evidently he doesn't see them as errors at all.
CASHMAN D.B.: THE BOSS ERA
Indeed, Cashman's decisions on starting pitchers records one pratfall after another. He has misjudged the talent of minor-league pitchers and miscalculated the fitness of major league pitchers for New York. To illustrate, see below.
- '99-- Mike Lowell for Ed Yarnall, Todd Noel, and Mark Johnson
- '02-- Ted Lily, Jason Arnold and John Ford Griffiths for Jeff Weaver
- '03-- El Duque for Antonio Osuna and Delvis Lantigua
- '03-- Jeff Weaver, Brandon Weeden, and Yhency Brazoban for Kevin Brown
- '03-- Juan Rivera, Nick Johnson, and Randy Choate for Javier Vasquez
- '04-- Jose Contreras for Esteban Loiza
- '04-- Signing Carl Pavano and Jared Wright instead of Derek Lowe
- '05-- Javier Vasquez, Dioner Navarro, and Brad Halsey for Randy Johnson
- '06-- signing Kei Igawa instead of Ted Lilly
Cashman's lone major addition to the rotation that counts as an unequivocal success is his trade of David Wells, Homer Bush, and Graeme Lloyd for Roger Clemens. A few minor trades, perhaps, qualify as well: his acquisition of Denny Neagle and Shawn Chacon. Still the starters who formed the keystones upon which the Yankees built their dynasty during the late 90's-- Cone, Key/Wells, Pettitte, and El Duque-- Cashman's predecessors, Michael and Watson, had obtained before he became GM.
In fairness to Brian, before 2005, he didn't actually possess the full prerogatives the title of GM implies. As such, George and his Tampa kitchen cabinet account for a few of the more egregious miscalculations above: signing Jared Wright and trading Jose Contreras. But Brian orchestrated many of the above trades as well or at least, has claimed to--Jeff Weaver, Kevin Brown, Javier Vasquez, Carl Pavano, and relinquishing Mike Lowell for what amounted to nothing in return.
CASHMAN A.B.: THE POST-BOSS ERA
Astute Yankee fans, of course, applaud Cashman for the principal objective he's pursued since assuming full authority in 2005-- disenfranchising George's kitchen cabinet, dismissing Lin Garrett's retinue of scouting incompetents, re-investing in the draft, and rebuilding the Yankee farm system.
He recognized years ago that the Yankees had to rebuild their farm system because revenue-sharing meant less and less genuine talent entered the free-agent market and when it did, more and more, it commanded inflated contracts that taxed teams' financial ability to address other needs, even the affluent Yankees. The nucleus of the next Yankee championship team, Cashman realized, had to arise from within as had its predecessor. Cashman also saw that teams profited from cultivating talent rather than buying it for reasons beyond money. Developing pitching, in particular, enabled teams to control innings, to limit injury risk, to mold character, to evaluate drive, and to predict how the pressure of New York would affect each player.
The wisdom and imperative of Cashman's goal and the vast improvement his leadership represents cannot be gainsaid. The Yankees could have done much worse these last ten years. Indeed, in the area over which Cashman exercised no control for seven of those ten years, the amateur draft, they did.
Nevertheless, his miscalculations about pitchers, past and present, beg the question whether he's best suited to bring the project he's begun to fruition.
Leave aside his eschewal of Santana and the opportunity he squandered to acquire Sabathia (then to try to persuade Sabathia to stay in New York.)
Questions abound, still, about organizational decisions he's made since he's become Commander-in Chief.1) Just two weeks ago, why did the Yankees join the Washington Nationals as the only two teams in baseball to fail to sign their first-round draft pick? Whatever the explanation, whether Gerrit Cole misrepresented his interest or Scott Boras deceived the team or Cole's father overruled them both-- whatever the explanation, for the result there's no excuse. Sharing anything in common with the Nationals is an embarrassment. Were that not enough, as it happens, the Yankees, evidently, wasted their second-round pick as well. The player they selected Scott Bittle they ultimately decided not to sign. (They did however sign their supplemental pick, pitcher Jeremy Bleich)
2) Why didn't the GM retain Larry Bowa? Bowa, since, has said he wanted to stay and in fact, deferred decisions on other offers until he heard from the Yankees. Apart from being an exceptional 3d base coach, he, evidently, was influential in Cano's development. Cano isn't the same player this year, either at the plate or in the field. Worse, Bobby Meacham, Bowa's replacement, has proven about as reliable at third-base as he was once at short-stop.
3) Why did Cashman place so much trust in Ian Kennedy, a pitcher with a single season of professional baseball, and 19 major league innings-- so much in fact that he assigned him a spot in the Yankees starting rotation before Spring Training even started? Did his performance in three starts in September really warrant such favor?
4) Is Joe Girardi's tense, irascible personality, that occasionally smacks of the defensive, imperial martinet, who cannot suffer to have his judgment questioned let alone criticized-- is he suited for a veteran team or the relentless scrutiny of New York? And what do Cashman and Girardi actually think they're accomplishing by displaying a penchant for secrecy, if not outright flagrant dishonesty, about player injuries that could make Nixon and Haldeman blanch? They act like they're in possession of industrial trade secrets the disclosure of which could decide a pennant race. What precisely would the Red Sox have gained had they known, along with the rest of us, that Joba Chamberlain's shoulder tendonitus would sideline him for about a month? Would they really have been more or less apt to place a waiver claim on Paul Byrd or to acquire Mark Kotsay? Perhaps, Cashman and Girardi have become a bit too enamored of the power their knowledge grants them. In the meantime, they've antagonized the press and alienated their fans as a consequence.
5) How can Cashman look at a team with a starting rotation where Sidney Ponson, Daryl Rasner, and Carl Pavano comprise the 3rd, 4th, and 5th starters and in his latest mea culpa, puzzle over why his team isn't performing? Cashman even has the temerity to tell Jon Heyman the reason the Yankees have underperformed isn't the pitching at all: "We haven't hit; that's the biggest reason for where we are. This team's DNA was supposed to mean 900 runs. We've had injuries but we haven't performed.'' (SI.COM, August 29, 2008) One wonders whether Brian actually believes his own cant. The Yankees Runs Scored-Runs Allowed differential is the second-worst in the AL East, second to the last-place Orioles. Has it ever occurred to him, that his offense has "underperformed" because they're all too aware of who is toeing the mound and pressing as a consequence? (In 2007, the Yankees scored 240 of their league-leading 968 runs or 25% against TWO teams, the Rays and the Orioles. If Brian knew the Rays were going to be dramatically better this year, as he conceded in Spring Training, against whom did he think the Yankees were going to generate enough runs to duplicate last season's total?)
6) Anyway, isn't negligent, at best, for Cashman to have depended on the production of a lineup where every hitter but one exceeded 32 years of age-- a plan designed to ensure against Hughes and Kennedy's struggles-- and neither anticipate injuries nor ensure his bench contained enough depth to replace the players injured?
The Yankees bench to start the 2008 was as woeful as their bench to begin 2007. In 2008, it consisted of Jose Molina, Morgan Ensberg, Shelly Duncan, and Wilson Betemit. Meanwhile, in 2007, Cashman began the season with 4 players capable of playing 1st base, Giambi, Minky, Phelps, Cairo; a minor-league catcher, Will Nieves; and Melky Cabrera. He hadn't even invited Shelly Duncan to spring training and then waited until July 20th to promote him.
7) What exactly did Cashman think he was accomplishing by disparaging Bernie Williams' worth ethic this off-season and praising Carl Pavano's eight months later?
8) And Kei Igawa? Organizations overestimate talent all the time. But how the Yankees could risk $46 million on a Japanese pitcher, who doesn't even dominate in AAA, utterly baffles reason. Worse, Cashman, not missing the opportunity to repeat the mistake of trading him in the first place, could have allocated a roughly equivalent amount on Ted Lily, a pitcher who already demonstrated he could hold his own in the AL East. Say what you will Ted Lily is a major league pitcher who threw 175 innings this year. Do you think the Yankees would have profited from having him instead of Igawa last year, Ponson this year, and God knows, who as their fifth starter in 2009?
YOU'RE NO THEO
But above all, Cashman is no Theo because he isn't equipped with equivalent or superior baseball minds around him.
The Red Sox front-office includes two former GMs in Larry Lucchino and Allard Baird, a disciple in Jed Hoyer, and the visionary Bill James. The Yankees Front-Office consists of two business people in the prominent positions of President and Assistant GM, Randy Levine and Jean Afterman: the first was a former deputy mayor and the second was the general counsel and negotiator for Japanese agent Don Nomura. Neither's forte is evaluating player talent. In fact, the one person in the Yankees' front-office with an established resume in this regard, Gene Michael, Cashman, according to Michael, consults only rarely.
Cashman's contract expires this off-season. And as ambivalent as I am about his judgment, I hope he returns. The Yankees can, and have, done much worse. Whatever his checkered record on starting pitching, he has made some very shrewd trades for position players over the years, from A-Rod to David Justice to Bobby Abreu and perhaps, Xavier Nady. And the farm system, especially down at the A-level in Charleston, has improved dramatically.
Nonetheless, if he does return, either he has to hire, or the Steinbrenners' must retain, more and better minds to surround him. People confident enough to speak the truth when their GM is wrong even if it costs them. For at present the talent gap separating the Yankees and the Red Sox transcends the personnel inside the diamond. Come this off-season it's the first void ownership needs to fill and the sooner, the better.