The Yankees officially beat out the Red Sox for the AL East title last night, but the two teams have been chasing each other for more than a decade now. It’s been a vicious cycle of free agent signings and trades and front office innovation, and Boston was winning the war in the mid-aughts. The Yankees have turned the table in recent years, and Brian Cashman spoke to Ken Rosenthal about how they’ve done it. He didn’t reveal too much, which shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve listened to the GM talk to the media for the last 13 years or so.
“[The Red Sox] were having a great deal of success with players of lesser ability,” said Cashman. “I studied what they were doing to some degree, adjusted accordingly, brought the Yankees up to speed, brought us into the 21st century.”
The Yankees have done a better job in the so-called scrap heap department in recent years, namely with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia this season. Does luck play a role? Absolutely. Luck is the residue of design though, and the Yankees definitely did their homework with these two beforehand, particularly Colon. Luis Ayala has been the best seventh man in the bullpen in baseball this season, and in recent years we’ve seen guys like Marcus Thames, Edwar Ramirez, and even Brian Bruney contribute positively to the Yankees cause. Not everyone on the roster needs to have a long-term role with the organization, filling the gaps with players capable of exceeding expectations has helped get the Yankees ahead of the Red Sox the last few years. Perhaps role players are the new market inefficiency.
“How they approached their pitching program was of interest to me,” added Cashman, explaining why the team hired Joe Kerrigan to be bullpen coach after the 2005 season. Kerrigan had been Boston’s pitching coach from 1997-2001. “I was throwing out much more [pitching] talent than the Red Sox had and they were having more success. It goes to execution, game plans, stuff like that.”
The Yankees still have not had a great deal of success turning their prospects into legitimate big league starting pitchers, though injuries have played a part in that to a certain degree. It’s also not an easy thing to do in the first place, and the win-now mentality isn’t exactly conducive to letting a young kid take his lumps either. If you don’t have instant success like Ivan Nova, it’s tough to keep a job in this town. They’re trying though, and I think they’ve been getting better at it in recent years, but they still have a way to go.
“Cash does it the right way,” said Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, who spent last year as a special assistant with the Yankees. “The way he works the room in meetings, it works. If he wants the analytical view, he asks [the stat people] a question and they provide the information. They usually only speak when asked. With the Yankees, it’s not, ‘these guys and us.’ They’re all kind of one.”
That last line is pretty telling, because for the longest time, all we heard about was separation between the Tampa faction and the New York faction. Cashman basically dissolved the Tampa faction after (supposedly) getting autonomy before the 2006 season, merging everyone into one united front office. Of course he did some house cleaning as well, firing several of George Steinbrenner’s long-time employees, including former scouting director Lin Garrett. Rosenthal explains that the Yankees are now “among the most aggressive teams on the statistical side, with more than 20 people working on analytics.”
Cashman’s contract is up after the season, and as I’ve said before, it wouldn’t surprise me if he left and it wouldn’t surprise me if he stayed. I’d like to see him back, but that’s another discussion for another time. Rosenthal’s article and Cash’s comments give us a little look at how the team has adapted in recent years, and how the Yankees are learning from their biggest rival. I’m sure this is a two-way street too, chances are the Sox have been doing the same as well.