Farm Aid for the Bronx?


More than half a century ago, Casey Stengel was asked who his third baseman would be in the coming season. “Well,” Casey replied, “the fella I got on there is hitting pretty good and I know he can make that throw, and if he don’t make it, that other fella I got coming has shown me a lot, and if he can’t, I have my guy and I know what he can do. On the other hand, the guy’s not around now. And well, this guy may be able to do it against left-handers if my guy ain’t strong enough. I know one of my guys is gonna do it.”

Casey never heard the term, but his spiel was all about contingency planning, which is what Stengel and general manager George Weiss did; what current Yankees GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre do would be more aptly called crisis management.

“He’s on a big hook,” George Steinbrenner says of his general manager. “He wanted sole authority. He got it. Now he’s got to deliver.” Assuming that sole authority is what Steinbrenner gave Cashman, the Yankee owner’s comments are justified. No GM in baseball has had the resources available to Cashman; no GM has delivered so little with so much.

The Yankees’ woes start with their farm system, more neglected than a Hollywood first wife. True, Cashman has been handicapped by Steinbrenner’s craving for veteran ballplayers, which has yielded the oldest average roster in the major leagues so far in this century. But Cashman has done little to try and remedy this problem, which has grown more glaring each season. The dearth of cheap, young replacements who can fill specific roles has hastened the decline of the Yankees’ bench—which in turn has led to debacles like the 2001 World Series, where the Yankees’ minor league reserves, consisting of journeymen Clay Bellinger (who hit .160 for the season), Luis Sojo (.165 that year) and 38-year-old Randy Velarde, probably cost the Yankees the World Series. Since then, Cashman has done no better than Enrique Wilson (.216 as a Yankee), Bubba Crosby (four home runs in 196 games as a Yankee), Ruben Sierra (.239), catcher John Flaherty (just 12 home runs and a .226 BA in 134 games, but one heck of a good broadcaster), and, most recently, Miguel Cairo (as of last week batting .125) and Wil Nieves (.103).

Every Yankee fan knows the scenario: Time and again over the last several seasons, the Yankees have won the eastern division only to go into an important postseason series just one player short.

The Yankees have often ducked the consequences of farm neglect because GMs like Philadelphia’s Pat Gillick were willing to chuck players like Bobby Abreu New York’s way just to dump their salaries. Now the chickens have come to roost: The Yankees burdened themselves with old breakdowners like Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson, whose early exits exacerbated the team’s problems by putting an increasing workload on the bullpen. Nor has Cashman ever seemed to be aware, as Weiss was, of the importance of depth at the regular positions. So when Johnny Damon gets hurt, when Melky Cabrera needs a refresher course in the minors, when Bobby Abreu inexplicably plays like he’s 37 at age 33, when Jorge Posada needs a rest after a night game, when the wind blows too hard on Jason Giambi, there is no one on the bench or out of the minors to help out.

This was never more evident than last season, when the Yankees could not respond adequately to the injuries of Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, and it’s true even more so this year when it seems like every other player is sidelined by a hamstring pull. Cashman’s lack of long-term vision has time and again left the team scrambling around trying to cure crises by overspending. It must be said, though, that even when Cashman has made use of that limitless checkbook, he hasn’t done it wisely. The Boston Red Sox, who are running away with AL East, are being paced by strong-armed strikeout pitchers Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Curt Schilling, a combined 20-5. All three were available to the Yankees. The Red Sox brain trust snookered the Yankees each time, leaving Cashman with only soft-tossers, most notably Kei Igawa (ERA 7.63 before being demoted to minor leagues), to plug the holes.

Cashman’s free-agent blunders reflect a failure to join the late-20th century in terms of baseball sense. The Red Sox now employ Bill James, the godfather of saber metrics, and numerous major league teams have followed suit by hiring someone who understands modern methods of player evaluation. Do the Yankees have any such employee? If so, they are in desperate need of a new one, someone who could point out that signings such as Tony Womack (who was 35 when he came to the Yankees in 2005 with a career BA of just .272), Carl Pavano (who was 18-8 in 2004, but just 39-50 in six previous years), and Jaret Wright (15-8 in 2004 but just 37-37 in seven previous seasons) were likely to end in disaster, particularly at the prices the Yankees paid. Or that Doug Mientkiewicz (last week batting .217) was bound to be a bust, as he was 32 years old and had hit only .268 in nine previous seasons.

Luck, Branch Rickey was fond of saying, is the residue of design. The Yankees’ luck this season has been all bad, and the logical result of Brian Cashman’s and the rest of the front office’s lack of design.

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