Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Yankees Vindicate Cashman, No Matter What Post-Season Brings

The New York Yankees begin post-season play on Thursday in Cleveland, but no matter what happens in the playoffs, 2007 has already been a successful year for the Bronx Bombers. Yes, they staged a rousing comeback to reach the playoffs, but to me, 2007 is a success because it showed that general manager Brian Cashman's bigger plan for the Yankees is working.

As has been reported ad nauseum over the last few weeks, on May 29, the Yankees had a record of 21 wins against 29 defeats and sat last in the American League East, 14 1/2 games behind the first place Boston Red Sox. They were nine-and-a-half games behind the wild-card-leading Detroit Tigers, and seven other teams in the league also had records that were equal to or better than the mark sported by the Bombers.

On that same date, the New York Mets were 16 games over the .500 mark (33-17) and held a five-game lead in the National League East over the second place Atlanta Braves. The Mets also had the best record in the league, 3 1/2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. At that time, there were a slew of media reports writing the Yankees' obituary while anointing the Mets as New York's new premiere team. Owner George Steinbrenner had hoisted Cashman "on a big hook," and by all accounts the era of Yankees success had come to a close.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Yankees' funeral. On Wednesday, the Yankees clinched a post-season spot with a victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, while the Mets crashed to defeat to the lowly Washington Nationals, slashing the team's once-mighty lead over the Philadelphia Phillies to a single game. By the end of the season, the Yanks were preparing for a first-round series against the Cleveland Indians, while the Mets' season was finished, and the team was left to try and figure out how it blew a seven game lead with 17 games to play, one of the biggest collapses in baseball history.

Baseball's 162-game season, combined with a playoff tournament limited to eight teams, is what makes it unlike any team sport in the United States. To use the oft-written metaphor, the baseball season is a marathon, rewarding teams that can survive and persevere over the long haul. It may be a cliche, but it is only used so often because it's true. All of the histrionics of May 29 were by short-sighted individuals who failed to understand that in baseball, you never know what will happen until the season has a chance to play itself out. Luckily for Yankees fans everywhere, Cashman saw the bigger picture.

On July 9, with baseball heading into its annual three-day vacation to make room for its All-Star extravaganza and the Yankees still sitting under .500 (42-43), still trailing the Red Sox (by nine-and-a-half games) and still out of the playoffs (eight games behind the wild card leader with four teams in front of them), I wrote an article asking (begging?) Steinbrenner and Cashman not to panic and deal any of the organization's top prospects for veterans. I noted that Cashman's installation of a sound plan to build for the future around young arms, and to avoid piling up high-priced free agents on multi-year deals, had been successful, setting the Bombers up for success in 2008 and beyond, even if the team's performance in 2007 was not ideal. And I observed that if the team's slumping lefthanders (Abreu, Cano and Damon) started playing to their career statistics, the 2007 Yankees could still make the playoffs.

I am delighted to report that Cashman showed great courage in sticking to his guns, making only two trades before the deadline, both of which were small in scope and smart in execution. He picked up an excellent backup catcher (something the Yanks have lacked for years), Jose Molina (one of the players I cited in my July 9 article for his smart play while he was with the Angels) for a third-tier prospect, and he jettisoned shaky reliever (and Joe Torre security blanket) Scott Proctor for infielder Wilson Betemit. Betemit is a minor upgrade over Miguel Cairo for the utility role, but the true advantage of that deal was that it forced Torre to try some new blood in the bullpen, especially rookie sensation Joba Chamberlain.

Behind the resurgent lefthanded hitters and a relieving corps solidified by Chamberlain and Luis Vizcaino, the Yankees climbed steadily up the standings, so much so that by August 30 they had taken over the lead in the wild card and had moved to within five games of the Red Sox.

I had written in the July 9 article about a New York Times piece on the dominant pitching of the Trenton Thunder, the AA affiliate of the Yankees, and how "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." Little did I know that two of those pitchers would make an impact in 2007 with the big club: Chamberlain, who posted dominant numbers for the Yankees out of the bullpen (one earned run in 24 innings, with 34 strikeouts and only 12 hits), and Ian Kennedy, who pitched well in some key starts in September.

Meanwhile, after Cashman was vilified in some circles for not parting with Kennedy to get Eric Gagne at the trade deadline, allowing him instead to go to the hated Red Sox, Gagne turned out to be a disaster, posting a 6.75 ERA and 1.875 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) on his way to blowing several key games for Boston. Similarly, Cashman took heat when Texas dealt switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira to Atlanta, but while Teixeira had a nice year, did the Yankees need a slugging first baseman more than Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and/or Phil Hughes (who would have had to have been part of any Teixeira deal)? Hardly.

The lesson of this season is that when things looked bleak, Cashman stuck with his smart long-term plan for the success of the Yankees. He had done an amazing job over the previous two years of building up pitching prospects via the draft and through trading unwanted veterans (like Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson and Jaret Wright, with Johnson and Wright barely playing before missing the rest of this season due to injuries, and Sheffield, by making ridiculous allegations about Joe Torre's treatment of African-American players, demonstrating why his departure was a case of addition by subtraction). As importantly, Cashman resisted the calls to unload his prized pitching assets for veterans. As a result, the Yankees not only find themselves in the 2007 playoffs, but they look forward to a future pitching rotation that includes Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy, all of whom had a chance to get some battle-testing in the heat of a pennant race.

Sure, once the first pitch is thrown on Thursday, I, like most Yankee fans, will be rooting hard for our team, hoping that the bats and starting pitching will be able to overcome a bullpen that is very suspect beyond Chamberlain, a banged-up Vizcaino, and an aging Mariano Rivera. But if the Yankees' season ends without a World Series title, once the dust clears, Yankee fans will have a lot to be happy about. We'll have a spectacular comeback to look back on, and a bright future filled with lots of talented young pitchers to look forward to. And, most of all, we will know that we still support the premiere baseball team in New York.

We have Cashman and Steinbrenner (for not making any stupid deals on his own) to thank for the rosy outlook. Based on how well Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy performed for the big club in 2007, I am confident that in the upcoming off-season, Cashman will be allowed to stay the course in building the team the right way. I truly believe the days of the Jason Giambi panic buys are over. It's only fitting that Giambi's seven-year, $120 million contract, which symbolized the moment the Yankees lost the plot and changed the way they did business from the 1990s strategy that produced four world championships (they have not won a World Series since the signing), expires after next season.

In this year's post-season, the Yankees will be counting on several players with fewer than three years of big league experience to make significant contributions, including center fielder Melky Cabrera, second baseman Robinson Cabrera, Game One starter Chien-Ming Wang, outfielder Shelley Duncan, Hughes and Chamberlain. Allowing young players to play key roles on the Yankees is something new to this decade. As a friend noted to me recently, this will be a fun post-season to watch, more than any in a long time, with all of the kids energizing a group of hard-working veterans, not to mention the absence of unlikable characters like Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield, along with the return of Andy Pettitte.

As Johnny Damon walks up to the plate to begin the Yankees' series against the Indians on Thursday, Yankee fans will not only be able to savor a great run in 2007, but can also look forward to the potential for an even better 2008 and beyond. Back on May 29, with things looking so incredibly bleak, who would have thought such a moment would come? Well, Brian Cashman did. And for that, Yankee fans owe him a big thanks. As Damon digs in, I'll be smiling. Win or lose this week, all is good in the land of the New York Yankees. The Mets and their fans will look on, jealous of the team across town, and all will be right in the world of New York baseball.