The 2014 season will be Brian Cashman's seventeenth season as the Yankees' general manager. That's not a typo. He's had the same job - arguably the most high-profile front office position in American sports - for nearly two decades. In the previous seventeen seasons, between 1981 and 1997, nine guys held the same title - one of them twice. In February 1998, when a wide-eyed 29-year-old Cashman was named Bob Watson's successor, the number one artist on Billboard's charts was Janet Jackson and Titanic was tops at the movies. Facebook and Twitter didn't exist. Neither did the Euro.
This year will also be the last of Cashman's current contract with the Yankees, a three-year, $9 million pact he inked in the fall of 2011. He's survived lame duck seasons before, but things aren't exactly as they were years ago. Cashman's no longer the Smithers to George Steinbrenner's Mr. Burns. He's working for Hal and Hank and Randy Levine now, and their motivations have never been quite as clear as the boss' once were. Their plan to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold by this season, while still fielding a championship caliber team, was just blown to pieces. Will they hold Cashman responsible for that epic fail? Or for the toxic dump site the Yankee farm system has become? The team committed a combined $458 million over 22 guaranteed years to their four main free agent conquests this winter. What if those deals aren't looking so hot after season one?
What exactly would it take for the Yankees' skyscraper repelling, sky diving GM to hit the unemployment line a year from now? Another missed postseason might do the trick. It would be the club's first time sitting out October two years in a row since 1992 and 1993. Continued minor league futility could factor in, too. If Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams and Tyler Austin can't reclaim their 2012 mojo - if Eric Jagielo, Aaron Judge and the much heralded 2013 draft class don't progress, it'll be another hard blow to a system that hasn't seen a first round pick make any kind of major league impact since 2006's Ian Kennedy - Joba Chamberlain duo. Qualitatively, that's Damon Oppenheimer and Mark Newman's department, but Cashman's technically their boss and the responsibility is ultimately his. If the farm continues to fizzle, ownership might seek out an executive known for a more hands-on approach in handling the system. If the Yankees ever hope to compete with a sub-gargantuan payroll, they'll need contributions from cheap, pre-arbitration players - contributions they haven't gotten in quite some time.
Failure by the Yankee farm system is one stain on Cashman's reputation that's stood out over the years, and there have been others, too. Though he's been quick to identify deals made against his wishes - moves for Jaret Wright, Kenny Lofton, Randy Johnson and both Sorianos, plenty of others have busted despite getting the GM's stamp of approval. Kei Igawa, Carl Pavano, Javier Vazquez (twice!) and the ill-fated Nick Johnson reunion come to mind. More recently, Cashman's refusal to acknowledge the Yankees' desperate need for help in the outfield and at catcher frustrated the hell out of fans a year ago (we seem to be headed down that road again at second and third) and scrap heap acquisitions like Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells turned out well, as expected.
As much as there is to cringe at on Cashman's resume, there's plenty to like, too. Fourteen playoff appearances, twelve AL East titles, six pennants and four World Championships are nothing to scoff at, even if you chalk some portion of that success up to the Yankees' innate ability to outspend just about everyone else. There have been some stellar moves made along the way, not all of which involved Scrooge McDuck style swimming pools full of cash. The Betemit-for-Swisher swap was an historic steal, yanking David Justice out of nowhere saved the Yankees' season in 2000 and even though Austin Jackson was jettisoned, Curtis Granderson proved a solid pickup. Some of Cashman's dumpster-diving endeavors have worked out. The team got better-than-nothing contributions from guys like Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Eric Chavez who looked to be on their last legs.
The scariest thing about the Yankees ever making a change at GM isn't so much losing Cashman as it is who might replace him. There are great baseball executives out there - Andrew Friedman and John Mozeliak seem to pluck elite talent from some kind of young baseball player vortex on a yearly basis. Ben Cherington's brought the Red Sox back while eschewing cumbersome nine-figure contracts and Billy Beane's pretty much the standard of the industry. Problem is those guys are all in great situations and probably aren't interested in abandoning them to be second-guessed by impatient owners, media and fans. On the other side of the coin there are plenty of GM's whose decisions are far more maddening than Cashman's on the whole - Jack Zduriencik, Dayton Moore, Ruben Amaro, Jr. and Jerry DiPoto, to name just a few.
If someone starts a Madison Square Garden-style "Fire Cashman" chant at Yankee Stadium this season, it certainly won't be me. You have to admire the guy for hanging in this long. But GM-for-life status shouldn't be on the table either. Despite all the Yankees have spent this offseason - and they didn't do it hoping to win 85 games again - they're still sporting an incomplete roster full of question marks that probably won't be answered by opening day. If the team on the field can't deliver, Cashman may be forced to answer personally for their performance this time around.
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