Cheap Thrills

The Yankees are retooling in uncharacteristically frugal fashion
January 15, 2007

AS BASEBALL spending runs amok this winter—four players have signed contracts worth $100 million, as many as in the five previous years combined—one team has shown a newfound restraint: the Yankees. G.M. Brian Cashman, who won a power struggle with the team's Tampa-based executives after the 2005 season, has remade his team into the bizarro Yankees, dumping big names in favor of unproven youngsters—exactly the opposite of New York's traditional M.O.

Having already traded ailing slugger Gary Sheffield, 38, and ineffective pitcher Jaret Wright, 31, this winter for young arms, Cashman was hardly displeased last month when 43-year-old pitcher Randy Johnson told him he would not mind being traded closer to his Phoenix-area home. (Cashman had called Johnson, who was never comfortable in New York, to offer condolences on the death of Johnson's older brother.) Cashman quickly went about unloading Johnson to the Diamondbacks in a deal completed on Sunday. The Yankees got reliever Luis Vizcaino, 32, and three prospects, including 24-year-old righthander Ross Ohlendorf, who went 10--8 with a 3.29 ERA in 27 Double A starts last year and was Cashman's main target.

In the past 12 months Cashman has acquired nine pitchers between 22 and 27 years old, filling what had been a thin inventory of good arms behind top prospect Philip Hughes, 20. Cashman has also emphasized spending more money on high-ceiling pitchers in the amateur draft. As a result a Baseball America writer recently ranked New York's farm system as the sixth best in baseball, up from 17th a year ago.

"When I got more involved with full responsibility of baseball decisions, I did not want to be dependent on the free-agent market, and that's before this one went haywire," Cashman said last Friday. "The way to do that is with in-house alternatives." So Cashman didn't come close to the Red Sox's winning $51.1 million bid for Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka; he exhibited no interest in Barry Zito, the top free-agent pitcher available; and he turned to the Rule 5 draft (Josh Phelps) and a low-budget defensive player (Doug Mientkiewicz) to address a need at first base now that Jason Giambi will be a full-time DH.

Cashman's plan to run a leaner, less reactionary organization, however, still allows for the occasional splurge. Even with Johnson—and especially now without him—Cashman has been coveting free-agent pitcher Roger Clemens, who has yet to decide if he will pitch for Houston, New York or Boston. Last year Clemens, 44, pitched 3 1/2 months for the Astros on a prorated $22 million salary. Not even the bizarro Yankees can pass on Clemens.

PHOTOJOHN IACONO (JOHNSON)GEE, UNIT Cashman (top) was happy to accommodate Johnson's request to leave. PHOTOJULIE JACOBSON/AP (CASHMAN)[See caption above]