It’s not always easy to evaluate decision makers in one-season samples. Often, it takes years for strategies to play out, for key choices to be proven poor or prescient. Just look at the Cubs, playing in their first World Series in a lifetime. It took four or five years for the fruits of Theo Epstein’s labor to truly be borne out.
In this case, however, it’s not too difficult to come to a conclusion based on one season. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had a strong year no matter how you slice it. He wasn’t given money to spend in free agency last offseason. What he was given, eventually, was free reign to rebuild the team in earnest for the first time during his tenure. That is where Cashman shined.
Before the trade deadline sale, though, the Yankees did make some moves to try and compete in 2016. They were just coming off an appearance in the AL Wild Card game, after all, so trying to win was far from an outlandish idea. To do so, Cashman and the front office worked the trade market rather than the free agent market.
First, they traded John Ryan Murphy to Minnesota for Aaron Hicks. Hicks struggled mightily with the Yankees, posting a 65 OPS+ in pinstripes, but Murphy was even worse, earning a quick demotion to Triple-A. Hicks certainly hasn’t won over the hearts of the Bronx faithful, but when he was acquired, he was a useful 26-year-old outfielder with four years of team control. It seemed then, and still seems now, a reasonable trade from Cashman, particularly given Murphy’s stumble.
A month later, Cashman sent Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan to Chicago for Starlin Castro. Neither Warren nor Ryan still play for the Cubs. Castro hasn’t set the world on fire in New York, either, but he is at the least a playable major league infielder with some upside. Essentially, the Yankees got Castro for next to nothing.
Then came the biggest splash of last winter: the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman. Chapman only cost the Yankees a smattering of fringe prospects, the best among them Eric Jagielo and Rookie Davis. The dominant reliever was available at such a low cost due to his involvement in a domestic violence incident.
Chapman performed up to his usual levels in New York, before being the first player the Yankees flipped at the deadline. Cashman extracted a ransom from the championship-hungry Cubs, in the form of top prospect Gleyber Torres, plus Warren, outfielder Billy McKinney, and lottery ticket Rashad Crawford. In strictly baseball terms, the return on Chapman was a huge win.
Cashman continued to work after the Chapman trade. Andrew Miller, possibly Chapman’s only superior among relief pitchers, was flipped to Cleveland for another bounty. Outfielder Clint Frazier and pitcher Justus Sheffield, both consensus top 100 prospects, headlined the trade. Miller was a tougher piece to deal, as he’s still under contract for two seasons beyond this one. As hard as it was to see him go (and eviscerate all opponents in the playoffs), the Miller trade went a long way to set the franchise up for the future.
Even beyond the blockbuster reliever deals, Cashman seemed to clean up. He flipped Carlos Beltran, a 39-year-old impending free agent, for a package headlined by Dillon Tate, a former elite prospect still laden with potential. He then traded Ivan Nova to Pittsburgh for two prospects that ranked among the Pirates top 30. Nova was great in Pittsburgh, but that Cashman got anything of value for Nova, a pending free agent who had a 4.90 ERA with the Yankees, was impressive.
On the whole, Cashman was given the opportunity to usher in the next great era of Yankees’ baseball, and by all accounts, that was precisely what he did. He only traded one player, Miller, who was clearly part of the Yankees’ future, and in the process vaulted the Yankees’ farm system to elite status. He did so without severely damaging the on-field product, instead leaving behind a still respectable Yankee team.
The only real blemish on Cashman’s record this season was the way he and management played the Chapman situation. Teams spend countless hours trying to gain some sort of edge on their foes, but that edge usually is in the form of defensive shifting, statistical analysis, scouting, etc. Using a player’s embroilment in a domestic violence incident in order to find value seems at best amoral, and at worst thoroughly repugnant.
From a baseball perspective, Cashman earns top honors. On paper, an 84-win, non-playoff season looks like a disappointment for the Yankees. What Cashman was able to do this year instead made it a success. The Yankees are unquestionably in a better position for the future, and it is in large part due to the work of Cashman and the front office.