Brian Cashman has been the Yankees’ GM since February 3, 1998. Since then, the team has reached the playoffs every season but one while taking home four World Series rings and six total AL titles. Still, the Cashman doubters always believe he has something to prove. Anyone could win with the money, they say. It didn’t take a baseball genius to sign CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, they claim.
In one sense, that criticism isn’t far off. The Yankees, with their league-leading $200 million payroll, don’t need a genius in the Front Office. They just need someone who won’t mess things up. That is, in the world of New York baseball, easier said than done.
For a few years in the mid-2000s though with George Steinbrenner’s baseball people in Tampa fighting it out with Cashman and his braintrust in New York, the team didn’t take advantage of its financial edge. They traded players with impunity, acquiring Javier Vazquez in a good deal one year only to see him depart the next. They dumped heaps of money on the old +- Randy Johnson – and the injured – Jaret Wright. They drafted poorly and seemed destined for high-priced mediocrity.
Then, after 2005, Brian Cashman put his foot down. Give me control of the team or I’ll walk, he threatened, and with George Steinbrenner’s health on the wane, Cashman had his team. Since then, the Yankees have reassembled their organization from top to bottom. They have prospects who aren’t going to flame out; they have put money into key big-name free agents who won’t be (too) overpaid. They have a development plan in place for young kids while maintaining the Steinbrenners’ win-now philosophy. Even with Hank Steinbrenner’s somewhat ill-advised decision to give A-Rod a blank check after 2007, the Yankees are on the right track. As Joe wrote in the preview, they have a plan.
In 2009, the plan paid off. The team won the World Series with contributions from the organization’s long-term projects and the team’s high-priced free agents. After winning, though, Cashman didn’t rest on his laurels. Faced with what passes for a payroll cap in Yankeeland, he retooled the team in his vision. He traded one of the team’s outfielders and a high-ceiling 19-year-old for Javier Vazquez, the piece that got away from 2004. He sent one of the team’s highly-touted position players and another Major League-ready arm to Detroit for Curtis Granderson. He let the World Series MVP walk; he let the All Star left fielder walk after a dysfunctional effort by Johnny Damon’s camp to land a better deal than the market said he could get.
When the Yankees opened the season in Boston on Sunday, the team looked primed to play. They scored seven runs, and only a bullpen meltdown helped them snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite the outcome, it was a promising start for an overhauled lineup.
This year, though, is truly Cashman’s year, and while it won’t determine his immediate future with the organization, it will showcase his talents as a GM. Did the Yanks make the right move in moving Robinson Cano to the five hole? Sticking Joba back in the bullpen and entrusting a starting spot to the youngest guy on the team? Letting the chronically injured Matsui walk in favor of the chronically injured but younger Nick Johnson? Bringing back Javier Vazquez for one year?
Building a baseball team is always a gamble, and the Yanks’ moves were relatively conservative. They didn’t dump heaps of money on Ben Sheets. They kept the pieces they thought could contribute most and still have strength and depth in the minors if and when they need to make the trade. They also bear the imprint of Brian Cashman, and this year, we’ll see what full autonomy means. The pieces he assembled from 2006 onward are paying dividends now. This team is his, and his approach is now, for better or worse, under the microscope of New York and its baseball-obsessed fans.