In one sense, it's very hard to argue with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman's overall body of work. Since he started on the job in February 1998, New York has captured the American League 12 times in fifteen years — adding two wild-card berths — winning four World Series titles. That's an impressive resume by any measure.
However, in the luxury tax era, baseball is entering a new age of parity, and Cashman has been slow to adapt to the economic realities that even a deep-pocketed team like the Yankees now face. Those flaws are thoroughly on display as the Yankees find themselves in a 3-0 deficit heading into Game 4 of the ALCS, and the GM needs to be held accountable for them.
It's no secret that the Yankees have been feeling the sting of the "competitive balance" tax, enacted in 2003 as a result of the previous year's new collective bargaining agreement. Since peaking at a contribution of $34.1 million toward the tax in 2005, New York has gone to great lengths to move itself closer to the tax threshold each season. After keeping a payroll of about $206 million in 2009, the Bronx Bombers have become increasingly more thrifty, moving down to $197 million in 2012, while openly professing a desire to cut further.
Yet still maintaining the consistently highest payroll in baseball, the Yankees have still been able to acquire players like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira under huge deals, and there are any number of examples of free agents they never considered signing — and in previous years likely would have.
However, the lesson that Cashman clearly hasn't learned is that cutting payroll isn't enough to remain constantly competitive in today's MLB. Financial flexibility is also a necessity, and insted the Yankees have continued to tie themselves long-term to overpaid veteran players. And New York is now feeling the wrath of that failed strategy.
The prime example of this is, of course, Alex Rodriguez. After the 2007 campaign, Rodriguez, at the age of 32, opted out in the middle of his massive 10-year contract, demanding another massive 10-year contract. Rather than playing hardball, the Yankees conceded, effectively bidding against themselves when no other suitors were apparent. They now find themselves owing a minimum of $114 million to a player who has posted decreasing slugging percentages for five years in a row — and they're stuck with Rodriguez for another five years yet to come.
Of course, it's not necessarily new information that the Yankees signed Rodriguez to a horrible contract, and it's widely understood that New York ownership went over Cashman's head in A-Rod's second deal. Nonetheless, it was very much Cashman's choice to continue to dole out long-term contracts to veterans entering their decline phase, further locking in the Yankees' roster and payroll, thus making adaptable changes on the fly nearly impossible.
The team likely had little choice but to re-sign Derek Jeter, given his historical importance to the organization, but no one forced their hand in giving Mark Teixeira — who now hasn't slugged over .500 in four years, despite playing in one of the best offensive parks in baseball for left-handed hitters — a contract which will continue to pay him $90 million over another four years.
Curtis Granderson, too, has been a disappointment. The center fielder has been a relative bargain at an average of $8 million over the last three years, but he's also one of the most overrated players in baseball. Not only does he enjoy an incredible homefield advantage (owning an OPS that's almost .100 points higher at Yankee Stadium), but he just doesn't generate much offense if he's not hitting the ball out of the park. In fact, in 2012 Granderson became one of only eight players in the history of Major League Baseball to hit 40 home runs in a season and post a park-adjusted OPS (OPS+) below 120.
Moreover, Granderson perfectly represents the crossroads that the Yankees find themselves at, and an example of why the team might be forced to endure the ever-dreaded (and in New York, nonexistent) rebuilding years. With a contract option for $13 million in 2013, Granderson is no longer going to be a value, per se. Beyond next season, the rumblings are already loud that the Yankees should approach Granderson with a (presumably massive) contract extension before he hits free agency.
But doing so would just be repetition of old mistakes for the Yankees — locking themselves in to overpaid players in their decline years.
Likewise, in New York it is practically blasphemy to say so, but the Yankees should think long and hard before handing out a blank check to Robinson Cano. The second baseman is set to turn 30 in just a few days, and by the time he hits free agency he will be 31. It's almost a foregone conclusion that New York will hand Cano almost any deal he wants, but by doing so New York will continue its Groundhog Day.
Cano is a very good offensive performer at a prime defensive position, no doubt, but a career .854 OPS is a much lower ceiling than the 1.000-plus figures that Rodriguez and Teixeira have fallen from. Basically, if the Yankees sign Cano long-term, it could get very, very ugly in a very similar manner to the aforementioned players.
But this is the mess that Cashman has made for himself. If the Yankees had been more selective in their signings, re-upping on Cano could be viewed as a selective risk because he plays second base. Likewise, the team would probably feel less pressure to continue with Granderson to make up for the declining offense of keystone players Jeter, Rodriguez and Teixeira. Instead, Cashman and the Yankees are likely to dig themselves in deeper — even the ever-sturdy Sabathia should be viewed as a ticking injury
time bomb given the number of innings he's thrown throughout his career.
Of course, this may not be entirely Cashman's fault, as he's under a unique pressure to field a winning team each and every year — and, to his credit, short-term signings like Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez have been nothing short of brilliant. The problem is the floor may soon fall out from under the organization in a way it may take many, many more years to recover from than if it were willing to take a step back, allow some free agents to walk or pass the team by, and start taking advantage of prospects and draft picks rather than using them as trade chips.
In fact, the Yankees can probably learn a lot from the bold, payroll-eschewing, flexibility-increasing moves made by their bitter rival Red Sox and general manager Ben Cherington. By shipping off overpaid but underperforming stars Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez midseason, the team made a decision that was detrimental to the 2012 campaign to avoid an even longer postseason drought.
In short, there are no quick-fix solutions. The free-agent market is no longer the prize-heavy free-for-all it once was, taking away the Yankees' primary means of refreshing themselves. New York's problems are not entirely Cashman's fault, and his autonomy to do his job has occasionally come under question, but ultimately he chose to add to the team's dysfunction and problematic contracts with more problematic contracts and one-dimensional players.
Likewise, Cashman has shown no willingness to make bold decisions and set the Yankees on a more tenable course. It could well be beyond his control, but the longer the Yankees go without addressing their organizational flaws, the more likely they are to relegate themselves to long-term irrelevance by holding on to highly paid disappointments.