The headline to this article poses a question in the wake of Michael Pineda’s season-ending surgery. It’s one of the most difficult questions to answer in all of baseball.
General managers are not unitary executives. They are just as aptly “middle” managers as “general.” They often report to team presidents or owners, or, in Cashman’s case, both. In his unique situation, he was also subject for years to the bifurcation of Yankees leadership between New York and Tampa, where his decisions were subject to ratification by an entire shadow leadership under the late owner George Steinbrenner—and for all we know that may still be the case.
Cashman has certainly made some poor decisions over the years, or has seemed to, but authorship is not always clear. One good example of a move that was clearly not his is the signing of Rafael Soriano in January of last year, a transaction that took place directly after the general manager said that he had no interest in the pitcher. A few years from now, the details will have been forgotten and that expensive and thus far unsuccessful move will be on Cashman’s ledger.
That is just one example of the way Cashman has been a prisoner of his organization. Yes, he has benefited from the Yankees’ ability to spend more than any other team, but it is also true that the organization’s peculiarities forced him to spend. For many, many years, the Yankees de-prioritized drafting and player development, with the result that Cashman had to buy or trade for what the club needed on the open market. That led to some of his most embarrassing deals.
The Yankees went through the 2003 season with a rotation of Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Jeff Weaver, with some starts from Jose Contreras. That offseason, they lost Clemens to “retirement” and Wells and Pettitte to free agency. This would have been a devastating blow to any team—no club can, under normal circumstances, replace three-fifths of its rotation in one winter, particularly not when the pitchers in question include a seven-time Cy Young Award winner and two top-50 all-time lefties.
Cashman found that there was little help on the farm, and given the Steinbrenners’ historic distrust of young players—George Steinbrenner almost always preferred to play someone else’s mediocre veteran over his own most promising kid—it might not have mattered if there had been help. As a result, he rebuilt the rotation, or tried to, with Javier Vazquez (who cost Nick Johnson, Randy Choate and Juan Rivera), Kevin Brown (for the ineffective Weaver and two prospects) and Jon Lieber, whose rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery Cashman had elected to pay for in 2003, a gamble that paid off.
The following offseason, Cashman tried again. Lieber was allowed to depart as a free agent; the vastly disappointing Vazquez was traded for Randy Johnson; Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright were signed as free agents; and (miracle) Chien-Ming Wang was added from the farm system. Johnson was 41 and the Pavano and Wright moves were almost guaranteed not to work, but what is a GM to do? You need pitching. You have none in the cupboard. You go to the supermarket looking for caviar, but all you find is hamburger. If you’re hungry, you buy the hamburger.
This isn’t the place to review Cashman’s entire career, but if you’re ranking general managers, the only fair conclusion is to shrug your shoulders and say, “Eh,” he’s no better than most and worse than some. Keep in mind, even after the deals cited above, the Yankees won 101 games in 2004 and were an ALCS collapse away from the World Series, won another 95 games in 2005 and have been out of the postseason just once (2008) this century.
The Yankees continue to be one of the worst drafting teams in baseball. Their ability to develop young players has improved to the extent that they have done well at scouting players on the international market, but that’s it. Cashman doesn’t hire or fire the scouting director (he’s had just two for his entire tenure, Lin Garrett and Damon Oppenheimer) and can’t be held responsible for the performance of the system, which has a wide but not necessarily deep selection of pitching and almost no position players of merit (Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams, both far from the majors, are probably best right now).
You can’t play prospects you don’t have, so again, the choice is hamburger or nothing. The Jesus Montero-Pineda trade is easily understandable in this context. Montero is or someday will be an impact hitter, but he has no defensive position. He’s a 22-year-old designated hitter who will not be a regular catcher in the big leagues. Think of Carlos Delgado—that was his story as well. The problem is, if Montero’s story ends the way Delgado’s did, at DH and first base, it diminishes the value of that bat quite a bit, because the offensive expectations at those positions are so much higher than at catcher. Looked at in that light, Montero is not necessarily that special—if he doesn’t hit like Superman, he’s just another bat who provides zero defensive value, one who hogties roster flexibility.
If you’re trying to find a way to add an additional ace in your rotation and you come across a fellow GM willing to deal you one who is young and under team control, you have a choice: Do you hold on to your hitting prospect despite his limitations, or do you gamble on the deal, even though when you trade a position player for a pitcher you risk exactly what happened to Pineda?
The rational answer is that you make the deal, every time. That Pineda got hurt subsequent to the trade shouldn’t change our evaluation of the deal or the reasoning behind it, and it should have no bearing on our perception of Brian Cashman.
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