October 27, 2008


Stimulus in Pinstripes: Never mind the economy. The Yankees see no choice but to spend their way out of their current predicament. How much for Manny? (Will Leitch, Oct 26, 2008, New York Magazine)

At the end of September, the Yankees re-signed general manager Brian Cashman to a three-year deal that will reportedly pay him $2 million a season (as much as backup catcher Jose Molina, if you’re curious). Cashman, a lifelong Yankees employee who started as an intern, was rumored to be considering jobs elsewhere but returned, in part because leaving now would brand him in the press as a failure, the balding short guy who’s always shaking hands at press conferences with men he’s just made absurdly rich but will never ultimately bring a title back to the Bronx. The pattern started with Mike Mussina in November 2000 and has since included Carl Pavano, Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Kei Igawa, and, of course, Alex Rodriguez.

What’s interesting about Cashman is that one senses he resents simply shelling out Steinbrenner Bucks to whichever hot new free agent happens to call. Cashman is close friends with Red Sox general manager wunderkind Theo Epstein, who has built the Red Sox into the envy of professional sports. He has done this by investing in the farm system and recognizing that leveraging seasons five years away for an ungallant gallop toward an unlikely postseason today is exactly what landed the Yankees in trouble. Epstein has the payroll, sure, but he runs the team as if he didn’t. The Red Sox featured five players 30 or younger in Game 7 of the ALCS, most of whom are under team control for the next several seasons. That’s the smart way to run a team. Cashman would love to do it.

Two problems. One: Cashman works for the Steinbrenners, who, using the same kind of logic that turned the Knicks into a horror show, consider a season without a World Series title worthy of the racks. But two, and more important: Cashman had his chance. Before last season, Cashman talked about keeping payroll down, trusting his young players, letting the next generation of Yankees take over … essentially acting like Epstein. (Or, for that matter, how the Yankees acted in the early nineties, when a recently reinstated and chastened George Steinbrenner held on to prospects like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera.) Cashman had his plan in place. He didn’t need a $200 million payroll to field a winning team.

Except, of course, he did. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were supposed to be rotation anchors; each imploded, leaving gaping holes filled by the likes of Brian Bruney, Darrell Rasner, Kei Igawa, and Sidney Ponson. (And later, ahead of Cashman’s timetable, Joba Chamberlain.) Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera dropped off dramatically, adding more credence to the notion that Yankees prospects are always of greater perceived value to the Yankees than to any other team in baseball. And those acquisitions signed earlier in the decade to back-loaded contracts? They did what aging players do: They got gimpy (Johnny Damon), declined (Jason Giambi), or both (Jorge Posada). Cashman’s grand reconstruction project ended with the Yankees’ failing to make the postseason for the first time in fourteen years.

Which brings us to this off-season. The Yankees are dropping several huge contracts: Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Bobby Abreu (who has implied he’d like to return come back, but probably not at a discount), Ivan Rodriguez, and (finally!) Carl Pavano. Pettitte is expected to return, and Mussina might retire, but the rest of those guys are gone, leaving holes at first base, corner outfield, and possibly catcher. (Jorge Posada being healthy for opening day is far from a certainty.) Sure, they could have filled two of those spots with current Rays (and former Yankees minor leaguers) Carlos Peña and Dioner Navarro. But they let them go. And the rotation is a mess of busted options; Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang are penciled in, but they come with glaring question marks themselves. (Adjusting to a full-time spot and recovering from injury, respectively. Oh, and don’t let Joba drive the bullpen car.) The Yankees are further away from a playoff spot right now than they were going into 2008. Cashman’s plan hasn’t worked.

So the Yankees, to steal a phrase, are going to have to spend, baby, spend. The only way out of this mess is to do what got them into it. The free-agent market is loaded this year with exactly what the Yankees need in the short term. On a fantasy shopping list, Mark Teixeira would look gorgeous at first base. Orlando Hudson could push Cano into a utility role. C. C. Sabathia, Ben Sheets, and old tormentor Derek Lowe would be all too willing to cash in and head to the Bronx. If the Yankees are feeling particularly frisky, they could even bring Washington Heights’ Manny Ramirez back home. All of these are options. They’ll probably even take one or two of them. The problem is that, to solve all the Yankees’ short-term problems, they have to do almost all of them.

This, obviously, is not what is best for the long-term health of the Yankees franchise. Ideally, they’d resist overpaying for “name” players and promote from within. But the young players just aren’t there and game-ready; Cashman hasn’t fixed that problem yet. There is no time for that. There’s a new stadium opening, the team has fallen behind the Red Sox and the Rays (and the Blue Jays are closing), and Yankees fans are unlikely to tolerate missing another postseason. Sure, it’ll leave the team hamstrung with awful Pavano-esque contracts in a few years. But they might have no choice, unless they want to throw Kennedy and Hughes to the wolves again. And hey, fans, wouldn’t it be fun to see Manny in pinstripes? It’d certainly drive the papers nuts.

...are condemned to buy old.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2008 10:16 AM
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