Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Case for Cashman

About a year ago, my friend Black Asian and I started a debate over a few beers...and in the last couple of months, it has become increasingly violent in tone.  It began innocently enough:  is Brian Cashman a good GM?

I argued he was - in fact, I thought he was one of the top 10 GMs in the game over the last fifteen year.  But before I'm accused of being a "homer", I should mention that I despise the Yankees:  I've been an Orioles fan since the mid-70's, with the Phillies (my hometown) a distant second.  As much as I enjoy those teams, one of the greatest moments I remember is Luis Gonzalez's hit over a drawn-in infield against Mariano Rivera in the 2001 World Series, ending three-year run the Yankees had as champions.

I couldn't sleep that night, I was so excited.  That's how much I hate the Yankees.

So how could I possibly defend his tenure as GM?  (some of this information comes from E-Yes-PN, so bear with me)

  1. George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973, and between then and 2010 when The Boss passed away, Steinbrenner had 11 GMs...and average of 1 every 2 1/2 years.  Cashman is the third-longest tenured GM in baseball today (trailing Brian Sabean and Billy Beane, the latter by only 3 1/2 months).  So he's served under the most demanding, meddling owner this side of Jerry Jones.  And he's still there. 
  2. How did he survive?  A few reasons.  Firstly, the Yankees have won non-stop since he arrived, only missing the playoffs one time (which cost Joe Torre his job).  The worst record since he took over?  87-74...and they won the World Series that year.  Their second worst was 89-73, when they missed the playoffs.  Otherwise, they've been at 95 wins or better, including a asinine 114-48 his first year on the job.
  3. To those who wish to NOT give credit to him in 1998, 1999, or 2000, remember Cashman has dealt with a meddlesome owner.  At the trading deadline in 1998, Steinbrenner wanted Cashman to get Randy Johnson who was on his way out of Seattle.  Cleveland, who had knocked New York out of the playoffs the year before, wanted him badly.  Cashman put his job on the line (he had a one-year contract at the time) and refused to trade for him.  In the end, Johnson wound up in Houston, New York defeated the Indians in the AL Championship Series 4 games to 2, then swept the Padres.  In 2005, Steinbrenner finally got his man.  How did that go?
  4. My friend suggests that most of the hard work was done by Cashman's predecessor, Gene Michael.  The farm system was stocked, and four of those players have been mainstays on the Yankees roster:  Pettite, Posada, Rivera and Jeter (Bernie Williams was a fifth I'll add to that list).  To that point, Cashman has done a good job of filling out the team around its stars.  Yes, it helps to have a checkbook with no balance, but he has needed it.  Why?  For a few reasons:  the Yankees have not drafted well, which has forced Cashman to spend to fill roster weaknesses where other teams could trade for them or bring them up from the minors.  And we can not place the blame of the farm system on Cashman, because he isn't in charge of that aspect of the Yankees.  
  5. Who did Cashman get to fill in on those first three championship teams?  He got Chuck Knoblauch for Brian Buchanan, Cristian Guzman, Eric Milton and Danny Mota.  When we look at WAR to see who won the trade, it's fairly close (7.5 vs 8.0)...but almost all of that value is through Guzman a few years later.  Knoblauch was worth 2.8 and 3.5 wins in those first two years, so we can assume Cashman came ahead in the trade.  He also brought in David Justice for Zach Day, Ricky Ledee and Jake Westbrook in 2000.  While in the long-term the Yankees lost that trade, David Justice stabilized the DH position.  He also added Chili Davis (DH in 1999), Roger Clemens as a free agent, Orlando Hernandez and others.  Was there anything like that in the Yankees farm system?  No.
  6. Another example of how Cashman has been forced to compensate for a weak farm system (taken from Bleacher Report): 
    The Yankees went through the 2003 season with a rotation of Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Jeff Weaver, with some starts from Jose Contreras. That offseason, they lost Clemens to “retirement” and Wells and Pettitte to free agency. This would have been a devastating blow to any team—no club can, under normal circumstances, replace three-fifths of its rotation in one winter, particularly not when the pitchers in question include a seven-time Cy Young Award winner and two top-50 all-time lefties.
    Cashman found that there was little help on the farm, and given the Steinbrenners’ historic distrust of young players—George Steinbrenner almost always preferred to play someone else’s mediocre veteran over his own most promising kid—it might not have mattered if there had been help. As a result, he rebuilt the rotation, or tried to, with Javier Vazquez (who cost Nick Johnson, Randy Choate and Juan Rivera), Kevin Brown (for the ineffective Weaver and two prospects) and Jon Lieber, whose rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery Cashman had elected to pay for in 2003, a gamble that paid off.

    The following offseason, Cashman tried again. Lieber was allowed to depart as a free agent; the vastly disappointing Vazquez was traded for Randy Johnson; Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright were signed as free agents; and (miracle) Chien-Ming Wang was added from the farm system. Johnson was 41 and the Pavano and Wright moves were almost guaranteed not to work, but what is a GM to do? You need pitching. You have none in the cupboard. You go to the supermarket looking for caviar, but all you find is hamburger. If you’re hungry, you buy the hamburger.
    Hamburger indeed - the Yankees won 101 games in 2004, and another 95 in 2005.
  7. Cashman has never let his ego get in the way.  Theo Epstein was one of the rising stars in the GM world, and he decided to make a power play in October of 2005.  He wound up caving in and returning to the Red Sox in January 2006...but wound up leaving again in 2011.  Is he a good GM?  Yes, but Epstein would've never survived in New York.
  8. Sometimes, the best moves are the ones he didn't make.  In 2007, Cashman went out to dinner with Carl Crawford's agent to make it seem like they were interested in him.  Epstein and the Red Sox bit on the fake, signing him to a seven-year, $142 million deal.  How well did that go for the Red Sox?  
  9.  Then there's the issue of A-Rod.  Cashman was able to trade for the talented shortstop, get the Rangers to pay 1/3 of his salary, and take back Alfonso Soriano.  In addition, A-Rod agreed to switch to third base, and change uniform numbers.  When Boras and Rodriguez announced that A-Rod was opting out of his contract, Cashman did not want to resign him, but was once again overruled by the Steinbrenner family.  
  10. Cashman has the respect of the players as well.  When rumors of discord became popular knowledge, he sat down with Jeter and told him that he and A-Rod needed to get on the same page.  They did.
So where does leave us?   It leaves us with a General Manager working for a team who has no control over the farm system, and only one option:  to win every year.  To do so, he needed to spend money to fill the needs of an aging team, and he did this exceptionally well.  In addition, he managed to keep his owner's own impatience and ego in check at times, while containing his own frustrations with moves made that he didn't want.  How many GMs could've dealt with this, in addition to the microscope that is the New York media?

I don't think Billy Beane could.  Theo Epstein's own actions suggest he could not.  In fact, I don't believe any general managers in the game today, or fifteen years ago could have.  On top of it all, the Yankees have won four World Series, and have been in the playoffs every year but one, and while the general manager does not have much control over the game-to-game situations, his job is to get them an opportunity to play in those important games.  Brian Cashman has proven himself worthy.

One final note:  the Yankees are looking to cut their salary to $189 million in 2014, which means they'll have to find a way to reduce their costs by about $30 million.  Their farm system doesn't have anyone that can replace their aging pieces, and Cashman's one ability is about to be taken away from him.  Will he survive?  I don't think so, but don't underestimate the ability of this Top 10 GM.

Friday, March 29, 2013

My letter to Rick Reilly

Many writers have been down on Rick Reilly since he joined ESPN and became a mere shadow of himself.  His lazy efforts in column writing have left a sour taste in some readers' mouths, and I'm sure jealousy contributes to their vindictiveness.

It doesn't help when you get caught doing this on national TV.

His latest column about the Lakers 33-game win streak left a sour taste in my mouth.  So sour, in fact, that I felt I needed to respond.

Way to "mail in" another column Rick.  Nice cliche at the end, but the facts of the story are weak.  Case in point:

In 1966-67 there were a total of 10 professional basketball teams, but by 1971-72 there were 28 teams between the NBA and ABA.  That "expansion" led to some extremely weak teams, and they were not (whether you believe it or not) all in the ABA.  Have you looked at the Portland Trailblazers roster from that year?  Or what Lanier was working with in Detroit?

When those ABA teams joined the NBA in 1976 (an eternity later, but you opened the door), how did they do?  The Denver Nuggets won their division, the Spurs had a winning record, and only the Nets (better than both the Spurs and Nuggets the year before) embarrassed themselves...because they were forced to sell their best players (Erving especially) to pay off the Knicks.  10 of the 24 players in that year's All-Star game were ABA alum.  Why didn't you see them in the NBA beforehand?  Because the ABA paid better.

Your "beasts" the Lakers had to face, night-in, night out?  I love Wes Unseld, but the man is 6-7...and was playing center for the Baltimore Bullets.  LeBron is 6-8 and spends some time at guard.  If these teams played each other, the Heat would beat them 8 out of 10.  In 2013, better and bigger athletes play the game.  The travel might be easier, the rules about 3 games in 3 nights may have changed, but the game overall today is much tougher to play. Your Lakers shot 73.4% at the free throw line...which would be good for 22nd in the league this year.

Defense didn't exist in the NBA - yes, the Lakers scored 121 points per game, but that's easy to do when a team takes 8000 shots in a season.  Last year in the NBA, the most shots a team took was 5400.  With fewer possessions and tougher defense, games are going to be closer...which is why the Heat had a tougher time winning 27 in a row.

Give credit where credit is due - both streaks were tough, and congratulations on the Lakers still having their record intact...but winning in the NBA today is much tougher.

But at least it gave you a nice ending to your story.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A few final words on the AL MVP

Answer:  Mike Trout

Question:  Who was the AL Player of the Year in 2012?

Before we move into the new season, I wanted to say a few things about last year's MVP race, and take on the statheads and pundits who screamed bloody murder and how the voters are concerned only about the Triple Crown statistics that aren't a true evaluator of performance.

Here are my problems with their arguments:

1.  What exactly is WAR?  Fangraphs has Trout at 10.0, Baseball Reference at 10.7 - because they're based on different weighted formulas.  Each gives different positions different values, and the defensive metrics are still in their infant stage.  I was a big fan of Bill James' Win Shares, but I think he's copyrighted that since I can't find his own rankings.  When WAR becomes the same for everyone, I think the older guard will gradually accept it...or just retire and let the younger generation accept it.

2.  Statheads also argue that there is no such thing as "clutch", and that a game in April is as important as a game in September.  To an extent, they are correct:  it counts the same in the standings.  But anyone who has seen a 92% free throw shooter miss the first of a 1 & 1 in the final minute of a last game, or a wide receiver letting a sure TD pass slipping through their hands on the final drive knows that the games at the end of a season are under a magnifying glass.  While it may be the same as an April game, the pennant race is studied a lot, lot closer - in the locker room, on sports radio, and the players can feel it.  So what did Trout do at the end of the year?  August and September were his worst months.  For Cabrera, it was the exact opposite - the last two months were his strongest.

3.  Finally, Cabrera was in the position to do something no has done since 1967:  win the Triple Crown.  More importantly, he did it...and while we can all agree that RBIs has more to do with opportunity given to a player by his teammates, the fact is Cabrera succeeded where others have failed.  So, not only was the Tigers being watched as they moved towards the post-season, Cabrera was under intense scrutiny for his pursuit of an achievement accomplished only 13 times.* 

This is why Cabrera won the MVP award, and I'm really not upset by it, even as I focus more and more on OPS, xBA, UZR and the like. 

Mike Trout was the best player in 2012...but Cabrera was the MVP. 

*I'm not counting Lajoie's achievement in 1901 when the AL was a minor league, or the two times Baseball Reference counts it from the 1800s.