This thing might seem a bit Pinstripe Pollyana-ish…
Since February 1998, 28 of the 30 MLB teams have changed general managers at least once. The only two not to are the Giants, with Brian Sabean, and the Yankees, with Brian Cashman. Even as the Yankees have faltered in the past few years, Cashman has remained aboard. New boss Hal Steinbrenner has faith in the GM and his philosophies, and in his fourth year of autonomous control we’re finally seeing what Cashman wanted to do when he re-upped after the 2005 season.
Despite the 12 years at the helm, despite 11 playoff appearances, five World Series appearances, and three championships in that span, there are some who think Brian Cashman has done more to hurt the Yankees than to help them. As the argument goes, he’s nothing more than an idiot with a checkbook. After all, if you can go out and spend $450 million on the top three free agents in an off-season, what can’t you do? In appreciating Brian Cashman, we’d like to debunk this thought process.
The charge: He can’t evaluate pitching
The biggest slam on Brian Cashman is that he’s a poor evaluator of pitching talent. The Yankees teams from 2004 through 2008 share two traits: lack of top-end pitching, and a general lack of pitching depth. Aging veterans like Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson headed rotations, and the back ends were filled with scrubs like Darrell Rasner, Sidney Ponson, and Kei Igawa. How is a team supposed to win like that?
The pitching evaluation argument stems back to the 2004-2005 off-season, when the Yankees acquired Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Randy Johnson. Pavano, infamously, missed the entire second half of the season with an injury which was thought to keep him out for a month, tops. Wright got hurt before the season was a month old, in perhaps the most predictable moment of the season. Johnson pitched well enough, but completely bombed in the playoffs.
It was after the 2005 season that Cashman gained the autonomy he said he needed to run the team properly. While Cashman was certainly to blame for some of the team’s moves from 1998 through 2004, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what was his idea and what belonged to the Tampa contingency. But looking at his pitching moves from 2005 forward do tell a story.
Heading into the 2006 season, the Yankees had pitching problems. With Johnson, Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang, Jaret Wright, and Carl Pavano signed up, the team had five starters, but getting 30 starts from each was as long as long shots get. They had some depth in Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small, but those are small, almost nonexistent consolations.
The Yanks could have used another starter, and there were a few available on the free agent market: A.J. Burnett and Kevin Millwood headed the class, but each had his flaws. Cashman smartly avoided that free agent pitching market, knowing that any short-term benefit these guys would provide, there would be long-term consequences. He passed on them, and while the 2006 pitching staff was far from stellar, it was still the right move.
The 2006 draft is also where the Yankees got a lot more serious about their minor league depth. In June they drafted Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Zack McAllister, George Kontos, Tim Norton, Dellin Betances, Mark Melancon, and David Robertson. The team got serious about building their pitching depth from within, so they wouldn’t have to settle for what the free agent market offered. The Yanks echoed this approach in 2007, as three of their top five picks were pitchers, as were eight of their top 20.
Cashman’s approach is clear. From the off-season of 2005-2006 to the off-season of 2007-2008 he signed just two free agent pitchers: Andy Pettitte and Kei Igawa. The latter is an inexplicable signing that ignited the Cashman hatred. The former has been a constant positive. Then, in the 2008-2009 off-season, Cashman added CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, two signings which, other than some blips from Burnett, have worked out smashingly.
Think about that for a moment, if you will. In the time Cashman has been the sole person in charge of the Yankees roster decisions, the Yankees have signed four free agent pitchers, and three have worked out. That sounds like a pretty good record to me. In fact, that’s impressive even before you consider the non-move that allowed the Yanks to keep Kennedy and Hughes (and others), while using the money that would have been spent on Johan Santana for Sabathia. It wasn’t a fool-proof plan, but the Yanks took the risk and it worked out.
At the same time, they’ve restocked the farm system. It might be a middle of the pack one right now, but looking back on its state when Cashman took over, there has been a marked improvement. The Yanks have seen a few of their guys graduate in this time, and still have some more prospects in the system. This has been accomplished through the drat, through international free agency, and even by deals with the Mexican League. To the latter, Cashman acquired both Al Aceves, current bullpen cog, and Manny Banuelos, who made this year’s Futures Team roster.
Like all GMs, Brian Cashman has made some poor trades and acquisitions over the years. The problem is that before 2005, it was tough to determine who was responsible for what move. Since then we know it’s been all Cashman. In that time he’s backed off free agent pitching acquisitions, saving his money for a select few. He’s also bolstered the amateur talent acquisition to provide the team depth. It takes more than a few years to rebuild a baseball team, and while Cashman had many pieces already in place, he’s done a good job to supplement them.
The results speak for themselves. A year after missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, the Yanks rallied to the best record in baseball. They have their best pitching staff since 2003, and perhaps their most balanced lineup of the decade. For this, we appreciate Brian Cashman and his efforts to rebuild the New York Yankees. It has worked this year, and I have faith that we’ll see the team, especially the pitching staff, improve for years to come.