May 16, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Brian Cashman, Loose Cannon
Things got very surreal in the Bronx this weekend. While the Yankees were going about their business of losing a season-high fourth game in a row on Saturday night—not to mention their third series out of four amid a 3-8 skid—general manager Brian Cashman took to the airwaves during the third inning via an interview with Fox's Ken Rosenthal, then briefed the press corps at even greater length to further spin an emerging story. In doing so, he made an already bad situation worse, creating what was quite possibly the low moment of his 14-season tenure at the helm of the Yankees, while continuing a remarkable offensive against decorum that has to draw into question his long-term future with the team.
The occasion of the mid-game interview on Fox was to make sure that a national audience witnessed Cashman throwing Jorge Posada under the bus. Not that the team's slumping, 39-year-old DH hadn't already done plenty to raise eyebrows and stoke the ire of the brass. Written into the starting lineup as the number nine hitter for the first time in exactly 12 years, Posada had gone to manager Joe Girardi approximately an hour before first pitch to tell him he couldn't play. “The conversation was really short,” Girardi told reporters after the game. "Jorge came into my office and said that he needed a day, he couldn’t DH today. That was the extent of the conversation." The late scratch mandated some communication from the team to the media as to the reason, though not necessarily a live TV appearance. Instead, after Cashman told Rosenthal, "It’s not an injury situation. That’s all I can report right now," he just kept on reporting.
Off camera, Cashman immediately met with the media in the stadium press box, divulging that he had discussed Posada's scratch at length with the player and his agent. Armed with this, Rosenthal was back on the air an inning later, throwing around legalese that indicated the situation had progressed far up the DEFCON scale:
Things got even more surreal. Bill Madden reported that the Yankees had indeed contacted the commissioner's office as to the team's options for recourse. Via YES reporter Jack Curry, Posada's father chimed in to dispel any immediate retirement rumors, while his wife Laura took to Twitter (in a since-deleted post) to say, "Jorge loves being a Yankee [more than] anything. He's trying his best to help his team win. Today, due to back stiffness he wasn't able to do that." After the game, Cashman and Girardi both maintained that Posada hadn't said anything to either of them about a back injury.
There was more talk of retirement and release, and somebody along the way may have called for a blindfold, cigarette, and summary execution for high treason, but by the next day at the Stadium, the Yankees were mostly in damage control mode, acting like adults. Derek Jeter had counseled Posada, who in turn met with and apologized to Girardi. "I had a bad day," he said. "I let some people down."
In his lengthy pregame press conference, Girardi warmly expressed his support for his scuffling DH, and waved off the importance of the actual apology:
Cashman showed considerably less warmth and joy as he briefly held court behind the cage during Sunday's batting practice. He spoke of the Yankees chain of command—more on that concept in a moment—in the context of not ruling out discipline for Posada, though by the bottom of the first inning, the Yankees announced to the press corps that he would not be fined.
In isolation, Girardi’s decision to bat Posada ninth was hardly indefensible: hitting .165/.272/.249, Posada has simply not produced at anywhere near an acceptable level. His woes are primarily the result of a batting average on balls in play that has cratered; while his isolated power and walk rate are more or less in line within his career marks, his .164 BABIP is about half of his career .316. After showing barely a platoon split as a switch-hitter over the course of his career, he's 0-for-2011 against lefties, reaching base just six times in 30 plate appearances via walks while failing to collect a hit. It's worth wondering if his problems are of a piece with the concussion scare that sidelined Posada last September and led to his mothballing as a catcher. Since last September 8, he's hitting .160/.280/.314 in 182 plate appearances, about a third of a season's worth.
What should raise some eyebrows, however, is the fact that while Girardi was willing to demote Posada, he has resisted the idea of dropping Jeter from the leadoff spot given a line (.260/.313/.320) that, past the superficiality of batting average, isn't a whole lot better, particularly when one considers that the bulk of the Captain's production—his only two home runs and thus two of his five extra-base hits on the year—came on a single day one week ago in hitter-friendly Arlington. Jeter's line entering that game was .256/.315/.282, and given the extra at-bats he was receiving atop the lineup relative to what Posada's been getting while batting mostly seventh, he was arguably hurting the offense more; since then, he’s hitting .185/.206/.185. Even after the winter's contentious contract negotiations, the shortstop is still something of a sacred cow within the organization, one armed with a new multiyear deal and still playing a position where he is subpar, while Posada is in his walk year and more easily pushed around.
In isolation, Posada's decision to pull himself from the lineup, while uncool, was not as beyond the pale as it was made out to be, at least to hear Jeter tell it as he staunchly defended his teammate on Sunday. "One thing I told him is if he said he needed a day to clear his mind, there’s no need to apologize,” he said prior to the game. "If I thought he did something wrong, I’d be the first one to tell him."
Posada's self-removal wasn't particularly well-handled or well-timed, surrounded by a swarm of national media in the midst of a losing streak, not to mention amid a series against the Red Sox, who had yet to spend a day at .500 this season until completing the sweep on Sunday. Nonetheless, on and off the field, the man has spent his 17-year career representing the organization well, emerging as a vocal leader and a five-time All-Star who deserves more than passing consideration on a Hall of Fame ballot to be named later. He has never produced the kind of drama that Jeter, or even Mariano Rivera, caused during this past winter's contract talks. After initially resisting the end of his catching career when informed by Cashman last winter, he has played the good soldier, even if he has yet to find a groove as DH. Scrambling for a way to feel as though he can contribute, and perhaps fretting the point in the future where he will be shown the door of the only organization he has ever known, his head was almost certainly not in a good place on Saturday.
Given all that, it not only rates as a questionable move for Cashman to go public as he did, it's hard to see how he could have handled the situation much worse, even if he did have the backing of owners Hank and Hal Steinbrenner. The Yankees emerged from the dysfunction and chaos of the first quarter-century of George Steinbrenner's ownership (at times in absentia, of course) at almost exactly the same time they stopped routinely flaying players in public. Team officials began acting like adults, the constant turnover in the front office and in the manager's chair ceased, and the franchise thrived on the field and at the gate. For Cashman to harken back to a day of kicking a player—not a scrub like Ken Clay or Tucker Ashford, but a pillar of the franchise—when he's down was downright Steinbrennerian, more disrespectful than batting him ninth. There was simply no good reason to air that dirty laundry, no percentage in embarrassing the player and, ultimately, the organization. No reason not to say, "I don't want to comment until I've had a chance to talk to my manager," and let cooler heads prevail.
Cashman has rarely seemed like the cooler head in recent months. Since the end of last season, he has spoken to the media with increasing candor, making for entertaining copy but no doubt ruffling the feathers of those around him. In November, he went on the offensive against Jeter as the team tried to work out a follow-up contract upon the expiration of the shortstop's 10-year, $189 million deal. When the Yankees' opening offer of three years and $45 million was coolly received, Cashman responded by announcing, "We've encouraged him to test the market and see if there's something he would prefer other than this. If he can, fine. That's the way it works."
The Yankees ultimately locked Jeter up in early December via a three-year, $51 million deal with a player option, but just a week later, Cashman's most prized offseason pursuit, Cliff Lee, got away, signing with the Phillies at the 11th hour. Having shunned the secondary starting pitching market (not without reasonable cause, given the relatively slim pickings), Cashman nonetheless raised a stink when the higher-ups—the Steinbrothers, as well as team president Randy Levine—decided to spend what amounted to a budget surplus on setup reliever Rafael Soriano via a three-year, $35 million deal that includes opt-outs after the first two seasons. Cashman stated that he didn't recommend the deal: "I didn't think it was an efficient way to allocate the remaining resources we have, and we had a lot of debate about that."
Not that he hadn't thrown dubious dollars at the bullpen himself over the winter himself. In early January, Cashman signed free agent Pedro Feliciano to a two-year, $8 million deal, even though the lefty had made a record 266 appearances over a three-year span with the Mets from 2008-2010—a workload Cashman later termed "abusive" after Feliciano had fallen victim to shoulder woes that will likely cost him the season. "It's a thin market when you are out there looking for lefties, and he was one of the better ones out there," Cashman said. "You don't typically run to sign up guys that have been used like that." And yet, here he had. One almost expected him to follow with the famous Simpsons line: "Oh, I said the loud part soft and soft part loud."
Though he's only 43 years old, Cashman is currently the third-longest tenured general manager in the majors behind Brian Sabean and Billy Beane, and he has presided over four world champions and six pennant winners. He doesn't get—and may not entirely deserve—the lion's share of the credit for that success, in part because prior to 2006, the team's front office was engaged in an ongoing power struggle between its New York and Tampa centers of operation, a creative tension fueled by the Boss. In negotiating his next extension, Cashman secured a level of autonomy he had not previously enjoyed. "I'm the general manager, and everybody within the baseball operations department reports to me," he said. "That's not how it has operated recently." Even then, he has benefited from having at his disposal the game's largest payroll in every season except his first (1998), at times exceeding the next highest-spending team by more than 50 percent.
Which isn't to say that he hasn't done well by the team: the Yankees have reached the postseason 12 times in Cashman's 13 years as GM, and own the game's top winning percentage and highest attendance over that span. Over the past several seasons, Cashman has resuscitated the farm system with the help of scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, and while the returns on the Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain/Ian Kennedy generation of pitchers—which vaulted them into the upper reaches of BP's organizational rankings back in 2007—hasn't been quite as advertised, the team currently possesses a wealth of near-ready pitching talent, not to mention one of the minors' top hitting prospects in Jesus Montero, not coincidentally a catcher whose defensive prowess is in such doubt that the team may eye him as a short-term option to replace Posada at DH.
Cumulatively, Cashman's loose cannon episodes and public distancing from his own roster can be read as the actions of a man who may be greasing the skids for his own departure; not coincidentally, he is a free agent after this season. His willingness to speak his mind so freely suggests someone who's tired of playing the usual reindeer games with the New York media, the careful dance of half-truths and disinformation in which the GM of a billion-dollar business must engage. After 25 seasons in the Yankee front office, he may desire another challenge, working for a team that will no doubt have less money to play with, but one where he has more freedom. Perhaps the Dodgers, the team he grew up rooting for, might appeal, since the eventual successor to embattled owner Frank McCourt may well cashier Ned Colletti (whose contract expires after 2012) and install his own man. Such a transition could be more than a year away, however, given the potential for McCourt's fight with Major League Baseball to drag on. Years ago, the Nationals courted Cashman, but with the well-regarded Mike Rizzo in place, they would appear to be set on that front. The Orioles? The Cubs? The Tigers? The Pirates? It's as difficult to envision him working for most other teams as it is to imagine Jeter wearing another uniform. Not only is it a challenge to understand why the GM might find a given team more appealing than his current one, it's hard to see the route by which he would actually wind up in some of those organizations.
For the moment, Cashman’s problem is still the Yankees, who have now lost nine out of 12 to fall behind the Rays. Though still first in the league in scoring, their offense is wheezing along at a bare 4.0 runs per game since the calendar turned to May. Posada, Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano, and Russell Martin are all mired in slumps of varying degrees of seriousness, and while Montero is hitting .336/.369/.443at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the roster only has so much flexibility, particularly given so many aging and expensive veterans. The rotation, seemingly rickety at the start of the year, has been a pleasant surprise thanks to Bartolo Colon, who has all but risen from the dead to cover for the quasi-injured Phil Hughes; four of the team’s five current starters have ERAs below 3.75. The bullpen is a bit of a mess given Soriano’s struggles amid elbow soreness (of course) and the lack of a shutdown lefty. Whether or not Cashman is eying a departure, it appears he’s got his work cut out to patch this team’s bid to remain in the AL East hunt.