Two problems. One: Cashman works for the Steinbrenners, who, using the same kind of logic that turned the Knicks into a horror show, consider a season without a World Series title worthy of the racks. But two, and more important: Cashman had his chance. Before last season, Cashman talked about keeping payroll down, trusting his young players, letting the next generation of Yankees take over … essentially acting like Epstein. (Or, for that matter, how the Yankees acted in the early nineties, when a recently reinstated and chastened George Steinbrenner held on to prospects like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera.) Cashman had his plan in place. He didn’t need a $200 million payroll to field a winning team.
Except, of course, he did. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were supposed to be rotation anchors; each imploded, leaving gaping holes filled by the likes of Brian Bruney, Darrell Rasner, Kei Igawa, and Sidney Ponson. (And later, ahead of Cashman’s timetable, Joba Chamberlain.) Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera dropped off dramatically, adding more credence to the notion that Yankees prospects are always of greater perceived value to the Yankees than to any other team in baseball. And those acquisitions signed earlier in the decade to back-loaded contracts? They did what aging players do: They got gimpy (Johnny Damon), declined (Jason Giambi), or both (Jorge Posada). Cashman’s grand reconstruction project ended with the Yankees’ failing to make the postseason for the first time in fourteen years.
Which brings us to this off-season. The Yankees are dropping several huge contracts: Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Bobby Abreu (who has implied he’d like to return come back, but probably not at a discount), Ivan Rodriguez, and (finally!) Carl Pavano. Pettitte is expected to return, and Mussina might retire, but the rest of those guys are gone, leaving holes at first base, corner outfield, and possibly catcher. (Jorge Posada being healthy for opening day is far from a certainty.) Sure, they could have filled two of those spots with current Rays (and former Yankees minor leaguers) Carlos Peña and Dioner Navarro. But they let them go. And the rotation is a mess of busted options; Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang are penciled in, but they come with glaring question marks themselves. (Adjusting to a full-time spot and recovering from injury, respectively. Oh, and don’t let Joba drive the bullpen car.) The Yankees are further away from a playoff spot right now than they were going into 2008. Cashman’s plan hasn’t worked.
So the Yankees, to steal a phrase, are going to have to spend, baby, spend. The only way out of this mess is to do what got them into it. The free-agent market is loaded this year with exactly what the Yankees need in the short term. On a fantasy shopping list, Mark Teixeira would look gorgeous at first base. Orlando Hudson could push Cano into a utility role. C. C. Sabathia, Ben Sheets, and old tormentor Derek Lowe would be all too willing to cash in and head to the Bronx. If the Yankees are feeling particularly frisky, they could even bring Washington Heights’ Manny Ramirez back home. All of these are options. They’ll probably even take one or two of them. The problem is that, to solve all the Yankees’ short-term problems, they have to do almost all of them.
This, obviously, is not what is best for the long-term health of the Yankees franchise. Ideally, they’d resist overpaying for “name” players and promote from within. But the young players just aren’t there and game-ready; Cashman hasn’t fixed that problem yet. There is no time for that. There’s a new stadium opening, the team has fallen behind the Red Sox and the Rays (and the Blue Jays are closing), and Yankees fans are unlikely to tolerate missing another postseason. Sure, it’ll leave the team hamstrung with awful Pavano-esque contracts in a few years. But they might have no choice, unless they want to throw Kennedy and Hughes to the wolves again. And hey, fans, wouldn’t it be fun to see Manny in pinstripes? It’d certainly drive the papers nuts.
Teams work within their own constraints. The Rays had no money for payroll, so they built from within, and now they’re in the World Series. The Yankees have their own constraints; they have to buy their way out of problems. Lord knows they can. Spend, baby, spend. Let’s see how high we can get those luxury-box prices in 2012.