Despite missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1992-1993, the Yankees have re-signed senior vice president and general manager Brian Cashman to a three-year extension. While the team isn't far removed from a long run of success on his watch, the current shape of the roster and farm system suggest that the Yankees have missed an opportunity to change directions.
Cashman, who joined the Yankees as a 19-year-old intern and rose through the front office ranks, has been the team's general manager since February 1998. Only the Giants' Brian Sabean (hired in late 1996) and the A's Billy Beane (late 1997) have been on the job longer. Taking the reins after Bob Watson resigned, he inherited a team that had won its first World Series in 18 years just two seasons before, and that had begun to reap the benefits of the maturation of homegrown talents Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams (Jorge Posada had not yet taken over the starting catching job). Augmented by some smart trades and free agent signings, the Yankees won five pennants and three championships from 1998-2003.
Since then, success has been harder to come by. The team has won just one World Series in the past 11 years, a relatively barren stretch by the standards of the franchise and particularly of now-deceased owner George Steinbrenner. That one came in 2009, when the Core Four (Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and Rivera) combined with a trio of freshly signed big-money free agents (A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira) and none-too-cheap holdovers (Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Alex Rodriguez) along with a smattering of homegrown youngsters (Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes). In the five years since, as the Core Four has faded into the sunset, they've won just two of five postseason series. They reached the ALCS in 2010 and 2012, and got eliminated in the Division Series in 2011.
Cashman bears an increasing amount of the blame for that dry spell. Before 2006, the Yankees' front office was engaged in an ongoing power struggle between its New York and Tampa centers of operation, a creative tension fueled by Steinbrenner, who always needed a scapegoat. When Cashman negotiated an extension following the 2005 season, he gained greater autonomy within the baseball operations department, which isn't to say he hasn’t been overruled by those above him. Via the New York Post's Joel Sherman, Cashman was against retaining Rodriguez when he opted out following the 2007 season, against adding Rafael Soriano in early 2011, against retaining Ichiro Suzuki after 2012, in favor of keeping Russell Martin following the 2012 season and against trading for Alfonso Soriano in mid-2013. Some of those moves wound up working despite his objections, but some -- particularly the Rodriguez and Martin ones -- contributed to shaping the team's current mess.
The Yankees went just 84-78 in 2014, still good enough to finish second in the AL East but a distant 12 games behind the Orioles and four short of the second AL wild card slot. That was the team's lowest full-season win total since 1992 (76 wins), and one short of its total in 2013, when the Yankees tied for third in the AL East and were seven games out of a wild card spot. They finished out of the running despite having the game's second-highest payroll ($197.2 million according to Cot's Contracts). Though they lost Cano -- the best position player the team has produced in the past decade and a half -- to the Mariners in free agency, they spent heavily this past winter, committing $438 million to free agents Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka (not including his $20 million posting fee).
Cashman doesn’t carry the entire responsibility for that spree. Nine-figure contracts don’t happen without the approval of ownership, but he’s not blameless for it, either, and the on-field return was underwhelming. Injuries derailed the seasons of Beltran (.233/.301/.402 in 109 games) and Tanaka (2.77 ERA and 9.3 K/9 in 20 starts), though the latter was brilliant before suffering a small ulnar collateral ligament tear that may still lead to Tommy John surgery. McCann (.232/.286/.406) underperformed considerably, and while Ellsbury's raw numbers (.271/.328/.419) weren't imposing, he was about as effective as he had been (111 OPS+, compared to 113 in 2013, and 108).
Meanwhile, age and injuries took their toll elsewhere on the roster, just as they did in 2013. Jeter never recovered his offensive prowess after his October 2012 broken ankle. Teixeira, who missed most of 2013 with a wrist injury, sank to .216/.313/.398 amid a second-half slump and lacked a proper backup. Buy-low infielders Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts were ineffective enough to be jettisoned in midseason, the latter unable to recover his form after years of injuries. Ancient outfielders Soriano and Suzuki predictably declined. Among the pitchers, Sabathia and Ivan Nova suffered season-ending injuries that required surgery, and Michael Pineda missed considerable time with shoulder woes.
Cashman’s midseason moves helped to patch the Yankees' leaky boat in more impressive fashion. At relatively little cost in terms of money and prospects, he added Stephen Drew, Chase Headley, Brandon McCarthy and Martin Prado, of whom only the first didn't pan out. Amusingly, he was able to get the budget-conscious Diamondbacks and Padres to kick in money to cover some of the remaining salaries. It still wasn't enough to do more than barely keep the team mathematically alive into the final week of the season.
As they head into 2015, the roster has no shortage of issues. They'll need a new shortstop, obviously, and with the 39-year-old Rodriguez returning from year-long suspension for his involvement with Biogenesis, they'll need insurance at third base at the very least. While the versatile Prado fits that bill, he could also reasonably be penciled in for the second base or right field starting jobs, depending upon Beltran's recovery from elbow surgery. They'll need insurance for Teixeira as well. And that's just the lineup …
Given that question marks will hang over the heads of Sabathia, Tanaka and Pineda (who was brilliant, but has nonetheless managed just 74 1/3 innings over the past three seasons) and that Nova isn't likely to be back until midseason, the rotation will need at least one starting pitcher. Possibly two, particularly if Cashman chooses not to retain McCarthy or Hiroki Kuroda, who's going on 40 years old and saw his performance recede for the second straight year. He'll also need to figure out whether to re-sign David Robertson. While Dellin Betances was lights out in his rookie season, moving him into the closer role means coming up with another setup man in a bullpen that looked at least a couple arms short all year.
On that note, the Yankees' ability to produce pitching has been the saving grace of an otherwise sputtering farm system that under VP of amateur scouting director Damon Oppenheimer (in place since 2005) has borne the brunt of high draft picks lost to free agent compensation rules, or at the very least chosen late in the first round due to the team's success. The triumvirate of Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy is now ancient history, but from the 2014 staff, Nova, swingman David Phelps, Robertson, Betances, setup man Adam Warren and rotation fill-ins Shane Greene and Chase Whitley were all homegrown. Aside from the decision on Robertson, all could help next year in some capacity. From among the position players, Brett Gardner and backup catchers Francisco Cervelli and John Ryan Murphy are the only homegrown players produced by the system in recent years.
Eschewing free agents isn’t really an option for the Yankees given that they’re short in near-ready blue-chip prospects. Twenty-year-old righty Luis Severino was the only one to make the midseason Top 50 prospect lists of Baseball America (34th) or Baseball Prospectus (48th). He has just 25 innings of experience at Double-A, so he's probably at least a year away. Twenty-two-year-old right fielder Aaron Judge, a 2013 supplemental first-round pick, placed 45th on the list of ESPN's Keith Law amid a year that finished in High-A Tampa. Catcher Gary Sanchez, their only position player on all three of those preseason lists, hit .270/.338/.406 at Double-A Trenton, but remains enough of a a work in progress behind the plate not to climb higher in those midseason lists. His future likely lies in another organization given McCann's contract and multiple backup options. Outfielder Mason Williams, who fell off the BA and BP lists after cracking them in 2012 and 2013, hit a disastrous .223/.290/.304 at Trenton.
The team does have a couple of lesser-regarded position prospects who could help in 2015. Jose Pirela is a speedy utilityman who hit .305/.351/.441 with 10 homers and 15 steals at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before getting a September cup of coffee with the Yankees. Rob Refsnyder, a fifth-round pick from 2012, hit .318/.387/.497 with 14 homers split between Double-A and Triple-A. He's a second baseman, albeit a shaky one defensively, who has experience in right field as well. Both could be given a shot at the starting second base job.
Add it all up and it seems clear that the Yankees again find themselves on a familiar treadmill, needing to cover for the farm system’s lack of production by spending big money on aging and thus more injury-prone players to work around similarly aged ones already in the fold. The ongoing mandate to win now may be a bit more subtle coming from Hal Steinbrenner rather than his bombastic father, but the expectation of perpetual contention doesn’t make Cashman’s job any easier.
Still, it’s fair to wonder if a different voice, whether from outside the organization or from below, such as assistant GM Billy Eppler (a hot prospect pursued for the recent Padres and Diamondbacks GM jobs) could push for a different approach in assembling the roster and farm system, finding ways to wheel and deal without always going the free agent route and bringing home better results.
The Yankees apparently don’t want to find out at this juncture, nor does Cashman want to see what lies beyond the Bronx. Had he not re-upped, he might have emerged with the Dodgers, the team he grew up rooting for, and one where incumbent GM Ned Colletti is said to be in danger given the team’s Division Series ouster. They’re the only team with the financial might to outspend the Yankees, but at least their core is younger. Instead, it will be business as usual for Cashman and the Yankees ... expensive business, at that.