Yankees GM Brian Cashman has never shied away from assessing his own performance. When he produces a failure, he admits it. We saw him do just that during the off-season, when he said that he wasn’t able to answer the team’s needs as well as Boston did. Instead of landing the one sure thing he pieced together a high-risk group of pitchers who weren’t even guaranteed Opening Day roster spots. As it turns out, luck made all the difference.
The old cliche goes, it’s better to be lucky than good. But luck runs out for everyone, and only those who are good have something to fall back on. Fortunately for the Yankees franchise, Brian Cashman is good. That makes his lucky breaks that much better. The 2011 Yankees — AL East Champions and holders of the best record in the American League — benefitted from the good that built the core of the team, and the luck that held it together.
The evidences of Cashman’s luck surround the team. They start with the pitching staff, which got 311 innings and a 3.82 ERA out of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. When they signed minor league deals last off-season they felt like stopgaps. Surely the Yankees would pull off a trade and bring in top-flight reinforcements. Such a trade never materialized, but it didn’t exactly hurt the Yankees’ standing. Even as Garcia and Colon faded a bit down the stretch, the Yankees still persisted.
While Garcia and Colon stand out, other minor Cashman moves paid off enormously. Luis Ayala also signed a minor league deal in the off-season. If it weren’t for Pedro Feliciano‘s injury, he might not have even made the Opening Day roster. By season’s end he threw 56 innings to a 2.09 ERA, soaking up innings when Girardi didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go to his top guys. His 20 games finished was second most on the team.
Cory Wade turned into a brilliant signing, not only because of his performance but because of what might have been. The Yankees snapped him up in mid-June, when he opted out of his minor league deal with the Rays. Had the Rays promoted him, the Yankees would never have realized his 2.04 ERA. Wade got them out of numerous jams this season, and made Rafael Soriano‘s absence a little easier to bear. Most importantly, he added a third reliable setup man to the bullpen, which allowed Girardi to better spread the workload.
On the other side of the ball, Cashman was more good than lucky. The first indicator of that: signing Russell Martin. After April he rarely impressed with the bat, but it didn’t take long to realize that Cashman signed him for other reasons. As Baseball Prospectus’s Mike Fast showed, Martin saves plenty of runs with his glovework behind the plate. Cashman also brought in Andruw Jones to fill the fourth outfielder role, after Jones showed signs of life, especially against lefties, in 2010. He even got a little lucky in that department: who thought Eric Chavez would have even 175 PA this year?
Those moves aren’t the only way Cashman is good, of course. It might seem, at times, that he succeeds because of others. There’s the core he inherited from Gene Michael. There’s the enormous Steinbrenner wallet that allowed him to sign CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira in a single off-season. He acquired A-Rod because he had the money to do so, and then re-signed him for the same reason. While those might seem like moves that anyone with a pocket book could have made, it conveniently ignores one point. Not everyone has that pocket book.
That pocket book is not a perpetual blessing. It comes with certain strings attached, the foremost being the mandate to win every year. That mandate requires a balancing act. Sign too many free agents and you have no first round picks to rebuild the farm. Even with the first round picks, you’re on the board after all the blue chippers are long gone. Since taking the reins in 2006, Cashman has walked that line with precision. He’s made mistakes here and there, as any human being would. But for the most part he’s balanced the need for high-priced free agents with the need to bring in young talent.
Then we get to trades, where Cashman has fared very well. Two key players on the 2011 team, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, came over in recent trades. Swisher was a complete heist, wherein Cashman took advantage of his opponents’ weakness. The Granderson acquisition was no man’s definition of a heist, but it was still a useful trade. They had to give up plenty — a top prospect in Austin Jackson and a useful pitcher in Ian Kennedy — to get him. But an outfielder was on the priority list for the 2010 off-season, and Granderson fit the bill.
At the same time, trading isn’t only about the transactions made. It’s also about the ones avoided. A recent report circulated that the Yankees and Twins had worked out a deal for Francisco Liriano this season. The Yankees ended up nixing it, which worked out pretty well for them. That’s just one known example. While every GM will lose on some trades, Cashman has, for the most part, managed to stay away from the big losses that can cripple teams — even teams with $200 million payrolls.
No GM is perfect. Brian Cashman has made his share of blunders. But on the whole he’s done a good job of balancing the Yankees’ need to win now with their need to win in the future. He’s made shrewd trades and acquisitions to build up the core of his team, and has gotten lucky on a few gambles. This is usually the part where the author compares him to his peers, but that doesn’t quite work with Cashman. He plays a different game than other GMs. He can afford to make certain mistakes that others can’t, but he still has to deliver a winner year in and year out. It’s easy to get lost in that jungle. But Cashman delivers. It will be reassuring, when the season ends, to hear that he’ll be back for three more years.