Monday, July 9, 2007

Steinbrenner and Cashman Can't Mortgage the Yankees' Future

With baseball entering into its three-day All-Star break, and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline looming in the not-too-distant-future, the underachieving Yankees will be tempted to trade young players in exchange for a veteran or two to help them turn things around.

Owner George Steinbrenner didn't earn the nickname "The Boss" for his soft heart, so he will no doubt want to do something to remedy the Yankees' 42-43 season, as he has watched his team limp into the All-Star break below .500 for the first time since 1995. Meanwhile, the normally responsible general manager, Brian Cashman, will also be tempted to try and salvage this campaign, in light of the Boss's statement in May that Cashman is "on a big hook" for this year's results.

I would advise both Steinbrenner and Cashman to take a step back, look at the big picture, and avoid making any move to improve this year's team at the expense of the future.

I would start by telling Mr. Steinbrenner that despite the Yankees' off year, Cashman has done a great job since he took over primary control of baseball operations after the 2005 season. His work should not be measured solely by the 2007 win-loss record, but rather by the state of the organization. An article in today's New York Times discussed the depth of pitching in the Yankees' minor league system, especially at the Trenton Thunder, the team's AA-level affiliate. Thunder pitchers are blowing away their opponents, maintaining a staff E.R.A. of 2.57. Throw in super phenom Phil Hughes (currently on the disabled list with the big club) and AAA prospects Chase Wright, Matt DeSalvo and Tyler Clippard (all of whom have pitched in the majors this season and showed, at times, major league ability), and the Yankees have tremendous pitching depth in their minor league system.

Young pitching is about the most important asset a team can have. Whether you decide to ride those pitchers to success, as the Tigers did last season, or use them to acquire needed assets by trade, nothing demonstrates the health of an organization more than the quality of its young arms.

Cashman is the man directly responsible for building the Yankees' kiddie pitching corps. As the Times article points out, in 2004, the Yankees ranked 27th (out of 30 teams) for minor league talent. By the start of this season, that rank was up to seventh, which is especially impressive when you factor in that the Yankees still have one of the weakest crop of minor league position players in the league. Cashman built up the young pitching through the draft (14 of the first 18 Yankee draft picks in 2006 were pitchers), while at the same time adding depth by acquiring decent minor league hurlers in deals for Jaret Wright, Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson, three players he was happy to excise from the roster, anyway.

In fact, Cashman's focus on young pitching has been part of a bigger strategy in changing the way the Yankees do business. Or, more accurately, going back to doing business the way they did when the club was successful. In the 1990s, the Yankees constructed a roster (much of it when Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball and general manager Gene Michael had free reign to make player deals) made up of gritty players who were more concerned with winning than putting up big numbers. On-base percentage and mental make-up were given more priority than home runs. Free agents were thought of as supplements to a strong core, not the center of the strategy. (Michael was practicing "Moneyball" before it had a name.) That approach brought the Yankees four World Series titles in five years, from 1996 to 2000. Those teams did not have major, high-priced free agents. They never had a guy in the top five in the league in home runs or runs batted in, nor did any Yankee win the Most Valuable Player award during that time. But, those teams had players that played the right way, and knew what it took to win tough games.

After the Yankees lost the 2001 World Series in seven games with a team batting average hovering around the .200 mark, the organization panicked and shifted strategy, signing the slugger Jason Giambi the next off-season to a seven-year, $120 million deal. That was the literal and symbolic end to the Yankees' dynasty. The emphasis shifted from fundamental baseball players to putting together a fantasy baseball-type roster filled with high-priced superstars. They have not won another title since.

The 2000s Yankees were built for the regular season, with big sluggers like Giambi, Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez, who feasted on bad pitching all season, allowing the Yankees to outslug lesser opponents, but who were limited by good pitching in the post-season, leaving the Yankees with no other way to manufacture runs. That's how the team bowed out in the first round in 2002, 2005 and 2006. In the 1990s, players like Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius and Bernie Williams were able to manufacture runs by putting together tough at-bats against good pitching, drawing walks, moving runners, and hitting in the clutch.

The lesson that should have been drawn from the 2001 World Series wasn't that the Yanks batted .200, but that they were three outs from winning the series despite batting .200. The player they missed in 2001 wasn't a slugger, it was relief pitcher Jeff Nelson, who they let go as a free agent before the season. Without Nelson, Mariano Rivera was pressed into Game 7 in the eighth inning. You can make an argument that if Rivera was fresh for the ninth inning, he would have held the lead.

Cashman, who has been with the Yankees his whole adult life and took over as general manager in 1998, understands the difference between the 1990s teams and the 2000s teams. Until 2004, he had to work in a labyrinthine, sniping, competitive Yankee front office where he wielded limited power. When he wrested control (subject only to the Boss, of course) after the 2005 season, he put his vision of a successful Yankees team into action. Only, he was stuck with an aging, inflexible, overpaid and undermotivated roster, with so many long-term, untradable deals, there was very little he could do. So, he bided his time, avoided extending deals (Sheffield), and unloaded current contracts when he could (Sheffield, Wright and Johnson).

It was a process intended to get the team younger, and to move from a roster of high-priced superstars to a group of players who knew how to win. While that process has led to the Yankees being 42-43, it has also left the club with a wealth of young pitching and no guaranteed contracts past the 2008 season, except for Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez (though he can opt out this winter) and Kei Igawa (okay, Cashman is not perfect ...). Or, put another way, Cashman has put the team in a place where it has the resources, both financially and in manpower, to build the right kind of team, one that can contend for a title.

Which brings us to this year's dilemma. It is hard to ask Steinbrenner, who is aging and, reportedly, in deteriorating health, to look at 2007 as a necessary step in a productive process, and to be patient that things will be better in 2008 and beyond. But, that is what he has to do.

The 2007 Yankees have several hitters that are not "playing to the backs of their baseball cards," as YES announcer Michael Kay likes to say. There is no doubt that if Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu and Robinson Cano were having years commensurate with their lifetime numbers, the Yankees would be contending for the American League East lead right now. But, as currently constructed, there is no evidence that the team would do any better in the post-season than it has the last few years. The weekend Angels-Yankees series illustrates this point well.

On Friday and Sunday, the Yankees slugged their way to victory, putting up 14 runs in the opener (started for the Angels by an injured and diminished Bartolo Colon) and 12 more tallies in third game (when struggling righthander Ervin Santana got the ball, taking a 1-7 road record into the contest). But, on Saturday, when the Angels went with one of the best starters in the league, John Lackey, and later brought in two of the best relievers around, Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez, the Yankees managed one run in 13 innings.

More importantly was how the Yankees scored (and didn't score). On Sunday, nine of the team's first ten runs came on three three-run homers off of Santana. As Paul O'Neill says often on YES broadcasts, once the playoffs roll around, you don't see nearly as many home runs, because the pitching is so much better, so you need to be able to manufacture runs to win. Saturday's 2-1 affair was more like playoff baseball, and the Angels were able to play "ABC ball" and execute against good pitching better than the Yankees could. In the third inning, trailing 1-0, the Angels got a lead-off double by Garret Anderson. Knowing runs would be at a premium, the next batters didn't try to do too much, with Howie Kendrick grounding out to first (moving Anderson to third) and Jeff Mathis grounding out to third to score the tying run.

Contrast this display of fundamental baseball to the three times the Yankees managed to get in similar situations. In the second inning, Hideki Matsui led off with a double, but Jorge Posada could not get him over to third, going down on strikes. Luckily for the Yankees, Bobby Abreu bailed out Posada by doubling in Matsui, but the Yankees would not be so fortunate later in the game, nor would they score again that day. In the seventh inning, Posada led off with a double, but, again, the Yankees couldn't move him along, with Abreu and Cano striking out, and Posada then getting picked off to end the inning. Finally, in the bottom of the 13th inning, with the Angels up 2-1 and one out, Miguel Cairo singled, stole second, and went to third on a passed ball. A fly ball would have tied the game, but after a Damon walk, Melky Cabrera struck out. Derek Jeter than grounded out to end the game. Faced with the good pitching, the Yankees couldn't find alternate ways to score.

And, by the way, how did the Angels get their run in the top of the 13th? Not surprisingly, they went the ABC route. Kendrick doubled to lead off the inning, and Jose Molina, after failing twice to get a bunt down, muscled a grounder to first to move Kendrick to third (he scored on the play after Cairo made an error). Saturday's game, a playoff-like matchup between Lackey and Roger Clemens, turned on which team could make the smart plays to squeeze out a run or two. It was the kind of games the Yankees teams of the 1990s won. But, with a strong pitcher on the mound, the Yankees were helpless. Maybe that's why they're a woeful 6-14 in 2007 in games decided by one run. Adding Mark Teixeira to the lineup or Eric Gagne to the bullpen would help a bit, but neither move would change the nature of the team.

Cashman made a statement last week that the 2007 Yankees, based on how they have played so far, have not earned the right to a mid-season trade (like the 2006 deal for Abreu). Rather, he said, this group has to show it has what it takes to be winners. He is absolutely correct, as the Angels series showed. Let's just hope that Cashman doesn't change his tune to pacify Steinbrenner, or worse, Steinbrenner doesn't overrule Cashman and make a deal that will damage the carefully laid foundation Cashman has built for future Yankee success. As hard as it is to believe, what the pitchers do at Trenton for the rest of this year is probably more important than what any player does during that time in the Bronx. Hopefully, Steinbrenner appreciates what his team has, rather than what it does not.

I have not given up on 2007. I think the starting pitching has been pretty good, the relievers have been better lately, and the lineup has the potential to score runs when not facing elite pitchers. To me, the 2007 Yankees still look like a team that can do some damage in the regular season. And, I will be hoping that after the break, they string together some winning streaks to put them back into the division and wild card races. But I will be hoping even more that the team doesn't trade any of its key young arms for a one-year rental or, worse, a bad contract that will burden the team for years to come. While I would like to see success in 2007, I am more optimistic about 2008 and beyond. At least I am today. George Steinbrenner is the only man who knows if I'll be as optimistic when the trade deadline passes on July 31.