By Jason Keidel
» More Columns
For too many years, Brian Cashman was the general manager of the New York Yankees in title only.
The media and masses saw him as a puppet, a man simply with the code to the safe, who merely carried the cash from the Steinbrenner stash to the next big free agent. It was a job anyone could perform, and required far less scouting than accounting.
Go fetch Mussina. And Giambi. And Matsui. Just jot a number on a napkin, slide it across the bar, and the player and agent nod, smile, and sign. Deserved or not, Cashman became the yes man of the Evil Empire, a business model that spent loads of money but didn’t yield the results that were commensurate to the criticism or the envy. Once they signed Jose Contreras, which provoked Larry Lucchino to forever brand the Bombers as such, the club won just one World Series over the next decade.
And no deal symbolized the reckless approach to baseball capitalism more than A-Rod, whom the Yankees simply absorbed, despite already having the largest payroll on the planet. Despite all those monetary advantages, clubs with a fraction of their budget were winning World Series.
But now the Yankees are on the come again, and they’re doing it — as Larry Brown would say — the right way. From the farm up. No edifice or franchise endures without a sound foundation, which they learned the hard, expensive way. Indeed, the Yankees entered 2017 with the most fertile farm system in MLB, according to an exhausted study by Bleacher Report.
It not accidental, nor incidental, that Cashman is behind it. For all the flak he took for being the mouthpiece of a baseball ATM machine, Cashman really does know baseball.
First they had the thunderous landing of Gary Sanchez, who seemed to hit an epic homer every game, if not every plate appearance. Then when he got hurt we figured we’d have to toil until his return to peek through the portal to their future. Enter Aaron Judge. Built like a tackle. Hits like a titan. Beyond his Bunyanesque frame, Judge is more than a strikeout/homer machine (.316 batting average).
And some say neither Sanchez nor Judge is even the best prospect. That would be Gleyber Torres, 19, who lit up the Arizona Fall League, winning MVP a few months ago.
Beyond their athletic splendor, what do these youngsters have in common?
Cashman bagged them.
We all took a turn spinning Cashman through the spank machine. Carl Pavano. Jaret Wright. Kei Igawa. You at least understand the desperate desire for pitching. But Kevin Youkilis? Does anyone even remember the former Red Sox as a Yankee? What was Cashman smoking giving a player well past his prime $12 million?
People in power often get inordinate blame and credit. But if we’re to bash Cash for the aforementioned blunders, then surely the Yankees (23-13) are smiling from atop the AL East due in great part to their GM’s blueprint. And the Bombers were supposed to be a year away, too young to know how good they could become. Some of that is simply good fortune, which means much better pitching than expected.
No one saw Luis Severino getting this good, especially after last year. Few saw CC Sabathia keeping up at his age, with his frame, and recent history of internal and external injury. Likewise, Michael Pineda. If you told Cashman that Masahiro Tanaka would have the worst stats on the staff halfway through May, he’d have winced at the club’s prospects.
With Aroldis Chapman back in the fold (though he’ll miss some time due to injury), rejoining Dellin Betances, everyone knew the Yanks would have a nuclear bullpen. We just didn’t think they’d have the horses to get them the ball.
Speaking of Chapman, he was the reason the Yankees have top-prospect Torres, acquired from the Cubs when the Yanks shipped the flame-throwing closer to Chicago. So not only did Cashman’s team get younger, it got better again when he also re-signed Chapman after the 2016 season. (In a strict baseball sense, of course. Many folks understandably question Chapman’s character, if not his caliber.)
So Cashman got the three faces of the future from three different means — Torres via 2016 trade, Judge via the 2013 college draft, and Sanchez as an undrafted free agent in 2009. And they are 20, 25, and 24 years old, respectively.
Another Cashman acquisition, Starlin Castro, the Yankee who leads in all the categories Judge does not, is batting a scalding .338, fourth in the American League. Castro is fifth in runs scored, with 26, and 10th in OPS (.904) (all entering Tuesday night’s game.) And he’s just 27.
With the big, sad, bloodhound’s eyes, like two blue moons carved into his face, Cashman is not noted for smiling, his long-form responses to questions in typical monotone, with all the excitement of a pilot telling you the current altitude.
If Cashman felt the barbs all these years, he never showed it. Likewise, he’s not gloating now that he has pieced together a good young club with a glittering future. He’ll talk for days about his team. You just can’t tell if he’s happy.
But if any Yankee in 2017 has earned a smile, a nod, or tip of the cap, it’s Brian Cashman.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel