This weekend I spent some time spelunking in 1954 back issues of the New York Times and The Sporting News in order to debunk a specious claim about Casey Stengel's platooning that year made in a book some years ago. In other words, it was mostly a waste of time, something done for my own satisfaction that I will never publish. Along the way, though, I came across some other things that will appear at some point, you always do. One was a note of winter activity that stands in such contrast to this winter's deathly stillness.
At times in the past when Brian Cashman's contract was up and noise was being made that other franchise's had interest in his services, people would ask, "How would he do as GM of the Red Sox?" "Of the Cubs?" and so on. And the answer was always the same: There is no way of knowing, because Cashman has not been a general manager in the same sense that anyone else is. He's been part of a broth with a dozen chefs split between New York and Tampa, and the decline and death of the meddling, intrusive owner doesn't seem to have changed anything in that regard. He's also been able to throw money at a lot of problems, and at times was probably forced to throw money at problems, which in turn created other problems, like Alex Rodriguez.
This winter he's managed to re-sign his key free agents and added Kevin Youkilis on an emergency basis, but those moves go to maintaining the status quo, not getting better.
During the 1954-1955 offseason, the Yankees were looking to reload on pitching -- the 1954 rotation was Whitey Ford and four days of whatever the bar had on tap; not one pitcher made 30 starts. Simultaneously, the Baltimore Orioles were interested in forgetting how to lose 100 games every year. Somehow the needs of the two teams aligned, although to this day it's not quite clear how or why given the trade they made. Seventeen players changed hands. The Yankees combed out their roster for players they didn't want or need and ended up giving up one productive veteran, Gene Woodling (though 32, he had 1000 games of 126 OPS+ hitting left), and a good young catcher in Gus Triandos (24, he peaked at .279/.348/.462 in 1956). The Orioles gave up their two best young starting pitchers, Bob Turley (coming off his age-23 season) and Don Larsen (24). The consensus at the time was that Yankees GM George Weiss had robbed Orioles' GM/Manager Paul Richards, and they were right.
The deal was an example of a GM making something happen when there should have been nothing. Richards was convinced he had used the Yankees to jump-start his team's rebuilding. Weiss was happy to let him think that.
The Yankees needed that kind of guile this winter if they were going to do something useful while operating under their self-imposed payroll strictures. They didn't get it, at least not yet. Unable to improve their team with money, they've been unable to make substantial improvements in other ways. Trading is hard when you've got little to offer aside from greybeards and your budget is as inflexible as a third-world dictator throwing a tantrum. To the extent the Yankees could have planned for this moment, they did so exceedingly poorly.
If I sound impatient about this, it's because it was preventable. The Yankees are like a fat man who gorges himself at the buffet every day for years and then cries that he has to go on a diet. The penalty-reset included in the current rules was not foreseeable, but that players such as Rodriguez would take up so large a percentage of the Yankees' budget so as to block out useful additions even as their production declined was obvious years ago.
Despite their self-inflicted wounds, they could still be all right this year. My good friend Mike Ferrin of SiriusXM insists the Yankees will win the division based on their pitching. He may well be right, but their margin for error is nonexistent and watching them get there may not be particularly compelling given the compromised makeup of the team.
Given the changes in the organization's modus operandi, however transient, it strikes me that we can now compare Cashman to other general managers. The result is not promising. Billy Beane's operating conditions may have come to New York, but Beane has stayed in Oakland-and even that critical comment grants Cashman a huge break given that the Yankees' 2013 budget will still be nearly five times that of the A's. He may be competent to work within the Byzantine world of the Yankees, the only job conditions he has ever known, but as far as running another operation at a high level goes, there is no reason at all to think he can do that, that he would know how to do more than outbid the other guy, that his deals would be good deals. We don't even know which deals are his.
Actually, let me take that back. This winter we do know which deals are his: none of them, because there aren't any.