Being the General Manager of the New York Yankees can be both a blessing and a curse. You get to have nearly unlimited resources at your disposal, which goes a long way toward being perennially successful. The ownership has a dedication to winning that means they will reach deep into their pockets to come up with the money necessary to sign a player they think can help lead them to a World Series.
It would probably be a pretty sweet gig if you didn't mind being blamed throughout every corner of New York every single time the season ended without a championship. It’s a thankless job in which anything less than a World Series ring is considered a complete failure on your part. Since taking over as GM in 1998, Brian Cashman has been the man dealing with the lofty expectations that come with putting together the New York Yankees, and in that time, has managed to spark a turnaround in how the Yankees operate their business.
There are many people who will assume that Brian Cashman has one of the easiest jobs in the world. The Steinbrenners have never been shy about spending plenty of money to improve the team where necessary (and sometimes where unnecessary), so all the General Manager has to do is back the money truck up to the Free Agent’s door, exchange pleasantries, and head home, right? Not exactly.
No one will ever confuse Brian Cashman for being Billy Beane. He’s never had to subscribe to the Moneyball type of baseball, because when your payroll is somewhere in the $200 million range, you don’t have to be extremely creative. However, Cashman has shown that he doesn't always need to throw money around to find good players. During an off season in which the Yankees missed out on their top target in Cliff Lee, while simultaneously watching the Red Sox add Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, Brian Cashman did not panic like some expected him to.
"I've tried to condition the Yankees to be proactive and smart, and not react," Cashman said.
He did not throw buckets of money at the first person willing to take his calls. Perhaps most importantly, he did not ship off the entire farm for a player just to say he made a move to keep up. Instead, he essentially went dumpster diving to find Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, both of whom performed better than anyone could have hoped for.
Sadly, Cashman has not managed to be wholly successful in trying to limit the reactionary moves. He was famously against the Rafael Soriano signing after vowing that he would not give up the Yankees 1st round draft pick. A lack of autonomy led to Randy Levine and company overruling Cashman, and signing Soriano to one of the more ridiculous contracts to date. Even if Soriano redeems himself in the 2012 season, the contract will still be a glaring reminder to all that Cashman should be the one making decisions and everyone else should just write the checks.
One of the greatest credits to Brian Cashman's success is the farm system. What was once a wasteland of insignificance has become a strength for the team, despite the poor draft position that comes with being successful nearly every year of recent memory. Before Cashman took over as GM, the food chain of Yankee prospects went something like this: play well, get traded for older, expensive, popular guy. Regardless of what you think of some of Cashman’s moves individually, he has been an asset to building up the Yankee farm system and turning it into something respectable, instead of just a place to hold extras until something shiny comes along. With the Yankees aiming to cut payroll in the next few years, having a strong system to build on to avoid paying high price free agent prices will be vital to getting talented players on the field, whether from within or by trade.
After the recent swap of Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda, the baseball world almost universally applauded Brian Cashman. No one knew Pineda was even available, much less that he was moments from being sent to New York. It takes a lot in today's media environment to be able to pull such a trade off with no one knowing until the ink is practically dry. Moments later, the Hiroki Kuroda signing was announced, even though nearly all buzz connecting him to the Yankees had fizzled out. After being eerily quiet all off season, Cashman wrapped up the main issues with the team in a couple hours. The jury will certainly be out for a while on the success or failure of the Montero/Pineda trade, but being able to do it in such secrecy to limit any competition in an age where it seems like even the slightest of whispers are heard instantly is no small feat.
For one part of the fan base, Brian Cashman is a prospect hugger who holds onto players when he should really be trading them for the best players on the market. Another section of Yankee fans think Cashman is too quick to trade players away that could become the next homegrown Yankee superstar. In that respect, it's difficult for Cashman to win. To get an idea of the value of talent the Yankees have both recently acquired and lost, I looked at 3 of Cashman's most recent big trades, and calculated the fWAR of each player since leaving New York, or since joining the team. Obviously this is not an extensive list, but it is at least a good idea of how things have been going lately on the trade front for the Yankees.
When Cashman sent Ian Kennedy, Phil Coke, and Austin Jackson away in 2010 for Curtis Granderson, the masses were ready to burn him alive. It certainly didn’t help his case that Jackson got off to a great start in Detroit and Grandy struggled to hit left handed pitching. One year later, the perception of the trade is quite different. In 2 seasons with the Tigers, Austin Jackson has posted 6.9 WAR, while Granderson has been worth 10.5 WAR since becoming a Yankee. Ian Kennedy had a brilliant year for the Diamondbacks (5 WAR, ERA under 3), but questions will always remain about whether he could duplicate that success in the AL East.
Then there is the infamous Javier Vazquez trade. Yes, he had had a great year in Atlanta. Yes, he had failed dismally in New York before. Yes, his dead arm probably had a lot to do with why he did so poorly in 2010. It's not difficult to see why people were so unhappy. Vazquez managed to only be worth -0.1 WAR in his 2nd stint with the Yankees. Some Yankee fans still lament the loss of Melky Cabrera, who has put up 3.2 WAR since leaving the Yankees, while Boone Logan, the lone reminder of that trade, has posted 1.1 WAR in 2 seasons. The wild card seems to be Arodys Vizcaino, who most consider to be the real loss of this trade. He looks like yet another promising young arm for the Atlanta Braves, and certainly looked impressive during his brief call up last season. Only time will tell how big of a loss he is to the Yankees.
The trade that stands out to me as one of Cashman's finest moments involved basically stealing Nick Swisher from the White Sox, while giving up only Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez, and Jhonny Nunez in return. Swish has become a fan favorite while putting up 11.1 WAR in his 3 seasons in New York. Betemit, Marquez, and Nunez have managed to combine for only 1.5 WAR since being traded. Trading away spare parts for a player that averages at least 3 WAR per season does not happen every day, and the fact that Cashman was able to pull that off for the Yankees is truly a testament to how successful he has managed to be so far.
If you're keeping track at home, that's an acquired 22.6 fWAR, and a loss of 15.1 fWAR. Not too shabby for a GM who doesn't have to rely on trading because of the deep pockets of the Steinbrenners, as well one that has to deal with the fact that teams seem to always demand a bigger haul from the Yankees.
It can't be easy to feel the pressure that comes with the job description of Yankee General Manager. You are forced to be perfect at all times, or face the immense black lash of New York media and fan base. However, that doesn't seem to bother Cashman too much.
"I've learned over time," he said. "I used to care. I used to pay attention to what the media said, what managers and coaches said. I've compartmentalized everything. Now it just doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. If it's the wrong thing to do, don't do it. If it's the right thing, you've gotta do it. I'm going to do it my way. You don't get points for pleasing people."
In a city like New York, that seems to be the best attitude to have. Caring too much would most likely drive a man insane in that job, thanks to the win or bust expectations. There are certainly vocal groups of people who do not approve of the changes Brian Cashman represents. They start sentences with things like "If George was still alive…" to voice their displeasure at a lack of blockbuster moves that will have the Yankees being declared pre season World Series favorites.
Off season "wins" don't always amount to much, though, and for once, the guy making the decisions for the Yankees is concerned about long term success as well as short term. It would be easy to look at the Yankees’ embarrassment of riches and claim that the person who decides how to spend it is of little consequence, but I don't believe that to be true. Before Cashman, things were run irrationally and with little regard for the future. It would be a terrible mistake to go back to that.
Say what you will about Cashman, he’s certainly made his share of mistakes, but he has set up the Yankees for success both now and in the future. As a businessman, Brian Cashman is calling the right shots.