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Last Tuesday night, the Twins beat the Yanks 2-0 behind an Eric Milton shutout and a Cristian Guzman homer. After the game, reporters noted that Milton, the AL’s best lefty starter this year, and Guzman, the league’s next great shortstop, were acquired in the Chuck Knoblauch deal three years ago. But no one criticized that trade’s architect, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
Joe Torre claimed the swap worked out perfectly because the Yankees won three straight World Series. But did the Yankees really need Knoblauch to win? In the ’98 and ’99 playoffs, the Yanks won in spite of Knoblauch, whose erratic performance made their job harder. And last year, the margin for error was slimmer—again, due in large part to Knoblauch’s woes. As a result, Luis Sojo and Jose Vizcaino manned second base during crucial stretches of the playoffs.
Using Torre’s logic, anything the Yankees have done in the Cashman era is beyond reproach. Not that Cashman’s reputation needs defending. During the Subway Series, ESPN called him the “Boy Genius.” Baseball America gushed this spring that Cashman is “infinitely smarter, tougher, and better at his job than people realize.” But when Cashman was named GM in 1998, Bob Watson handed him a team (sans Knoblauch) that would win 114 regular-season games; in two years, the young GM turned that juggernaut into a squad that barely reached the playoffs (at 87-74). Franchises don’t get 27 games worse by accident. The Yankees’ enormous revenue stream gives the team an edge in every area of talent acquisition except trades. So we decided to take a look at how Cashman performs when the playing field is level.
February 1998: Pitchers Eric Milton and Danny Mota, shortstop Cristian Guzman, outfielder Brian Buchanan, and $3 million to Minnesota for Chuck Knoblauch. Three years ago, Knoblauch was headed for Cooperstown. As a Yankee, Knoblauch lost 50 points from his On-Base Average and 25 stolen bases a year. Relocated to left field, he is experiencing an offensive revival. Buchanan, a minor-league journeyman, is the Twins’ least valuable player. Mota, a wild flamethrower, pitches middle relief in AAA. But Milton and Guzman should be All-Stars this summer. grade: D
March 1998: Utilityman Andy Fox to Arizona for pitchers Todd Erdos and Marty Janzen. Erdos was waived after pitching poorly for the Yanks in 2000. Janzen, no longer a Yankee, is bouncing around the high minors. Fox, one of Buck Showalter’s favorite players, was the fourth outfielder for the 1999 NL West champs. grade: D
December 1998: Outfielder Chris Singleton to Chicago for pitcher Rich Pratt. The Yanks released Pratt a few months later. Singleton immediately earned the White Sox starting center-field job. While Singleton is struggling this season, he played great defense, ran well, and hit with decent power for the league’s winningest team last year. Cashman told The Sporting News, “[White Sox GM Ron Schueler] picked my pocket on that one.” grade: F
February 1999: Third baseman Mike Lowell to Florida for pitchers Mark Johnson, Todd Noel, and Ed Yarnall. The Yanks lost Johnson in the 1999 Rule 5 draft and included Yarnall in the Denny Neagle trade last year. Noel, the Yankees’ most overrated prospect, can’t throw strikes or stay healthy. Lowell, meanwhile, has recovered fully from testicular cancer and ranks among the NL leaders in RBI and extra-base hits this season. He’s got a good glove, too. If Drew Henson is as good in three years as Lowell is now, the Yanks will be thrilled. grade: D-
February 1999: Pitchers David Wells and Graeme Lloyd and second baseman Homer Bush to Toronto for Roger Clemens. At the time, the Rocket had just won back-to-back Cy Young Awards, and the Yankees believed Clemens would be more durable. Since the trade, the Fat Man has thrown 70 more innings and won 10 more games than the Bat Throwing Man. Oops. Clemens threw well in the 2000 playoffs, but Wells has been a much better money pitcher. Bush and Lloyd had solid 1999 seasons and abysmal 2000 campaigns. In 2001, Clemens and Wells are off to equally good starts. And while Bush is injured, Lloyd is back among baseball’s best spot relievers. grade: D+
December 1999: Outfielder Chad Curtis to Texas for pitchers Brandon Knight and Sam Marsonek. The Fox, Singleton, and Curtis trades were similar. Each time, the Yanks traded an extra outfielder for minor-league pitching depth. However, the Yanks are not getting quality arms, and any of the discarded outfielders could have plugged the team’s hole in left field. Before injuring his hamstring early this month, 32-year-old Curtis was having a better offensive season than the 32-year-old Knoblauch at one-third the salary. Knight has pitched well in Columbus so far this season and is near the top of the list if the Yanks need to replace a starter. Marsonek is not a real prospect. grade: D
December 1999: Pitcher Hideki Irabu to Montreal for pitchers Ted Lilly, Christian Parker, and Jake Westbrook. George’s favorite amphibian pitched poorly in 2000 before having elbow surgery from which he is still recovering. Westbrook helped the Yanks land David Justice in mid 2000. Parker, who led the minors in innings pitched last year, is disabled indefinitely with shoulder tendinitis. Lilly, a lefty with a live arm, has pitched just well enough to keep the fifth starter’s job. But his 6.75 Major League ERA looks suspiciously similar to Irabu’s 7.09 ERA in his first Yankee season. grade: B
June 2000: Outfielder Ricky Ledee and pitchers Zach Day and Jake Westbrook to Cleveland for outfielder Dave Justice. After the trade, Justice blasted more homers in half a season than any everyday Yankee ripped all year—save Bernie and Jorge. Then he led the team with 12 RBI in 16 postseason games. Cleveland quickly traded Ledee for two months of David Segui. Day, the AA Eastern League’s best pitcher, and Westbrook, one of the AAA’s best, could become solid Major League starters. Without this trade, the Yankees might not have won the division last year, let alone the World Series. grade: A-
July 2000: Third baseman Drew Henson, pitchers Ed Yarnall and Brian Reith, and outfielder Jackson Melian to Cincinnati for pitcher Denny Neagle and outfielder Mike Frank; and March 2001: Outfielder Willy MoPena to Cincinnati for Henson and outfielder Michael Coleman. Henson—an undeniable talent—is back. Otherwise, the Yanks didn’t get much. In a half-season in New York, Neagle pitched erratically. Coleman doesn’t get on base enough to hold a full-time job. And Frank was a throw-in. What the Reds received could be tremendous. Yarnall has yet to convert his great minor-league stats into Major League success, but Reith, a top prospect, is dominating the AA Southern League this year. Melian reminds scouts of Alfonso Soriano, while Pena is hitting bombs in A ball. Each struggles to get on base, but at age 21 and 19, respectively, they’ve got time to improve. grade: D+
July 2000: Pitchers Ben Ford and Ozwaldo Mairena to Chicago (NL) for outfielder Glenallen Hill and March 2001: Outfielder Glenallen Hill to Anaheim for outfielder Darren Blakely. Hill was outrageously productive for the Yanks last season, including a Spencer-esque stretch of 10 bombs in his first 51 at-bats. The Cubs traded Mairena this spring to Florida for Manny Aybar, who would be better in the Yankee pen than Todd Williams. Neither Ford nor Blakely, a slap hitter in the minors, are expected to reach the majors. grade: B+
Imagine the 2001 Yankees without Cashman’s moves. The roster would be younger, stronger, and about $12 million cheaper. Wells and Milton would replace Clemens and Lilly. Lloyd would take Todd Williams’s spot in the pen. Lowell, Guzman, and Curtis would be in the everyday lineup instead of Brosius, Knoblauch, and Justice. That’s a better team.
Also, the Yankees have resumed their old habit of mortgaging the future. Cashman has traded nearly half of the Yankees’ top prospects. The third-base fiasco illustrates what this costs. Had they held onto Lowell, they would have an All-Star in his prime earning a paltry $500,000. Instead they are paying a declining Brosius (despite the fast start this season), a worthless Andy Morales (recently put through waivers), and Henson over $9 million to do a worse job this year.
How can a team win three titles in a row with a GM making so many bad trades? The prior brain trust secured tremendous talent—Bernie, Mariano, Derek—and the organization has the money to keep all those players. While Cashman’s lousy swaps created flaws he had to fix, there is no question he came through in the clutch last summer. He will have to do it yet again to keep the Yankee dynasty alive.