Cashman is Holding the Yankees Back (Special from the IBWAA)
By Dan Epstein (Special from the IBWAA)
This article was featured in “Here’s The Pitch” the newsletter of the IBWAA and is shared with permission. This article was published in August 2023.
Why Brian Cashman Is Holding The Yankees Back:
The Worst Slump On The Yankees Is Brian Cashman’s
The Yankees are 56-52 through Wednesday’s action, which lands them squarely in last place in the formidable AL East. Despite having an overall record above .500 – for now – they’re 22-29 since May 31 and 91-87 since the 2022 All-Star Game. They’ve fallen far short of expectations to contend for a championship and are now unlikely to make the playoffs at all.
Several individual players share the blame. Anthony Rizzo has a .225 slugging percentage since June, the worst of any qualified player in MLB. Giancarlo Stanton’s on-base percentage since the beginning of 2022 is .289 and he’s striking out in 28.3 percent of his plate appearances. Luis Severino owns a 7.49 ERA with a 1.84 WHIP this year. But the person whose poor performance has hurt the team the most is general manager Brian Cashman.
Let’s rewind to the 2021-2022 offseason, which was marred by a lockout that stretched from Dec. 2 to March 10. The Yankees weren’t very active prior to the lockout. Once the offseason resumed, he made three significant moves. He re-signed Rizzo on what proved to be a one-year deal (he exercised an opt-out after the season), traded Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela to Minnesota for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Ben Rortvedt, and traded Albert Abreu for Jose Trevino and a Minor Leaguer.
The Rizzo signing worked out fine, especially since their plan B would have been DJ LeMahieu, who was needed at other infield spots. The Trevino trade was great, even though it was forced when Rortvedt injured himself in Spring Training. He played his way onto the All-Star team after a big first half at the plate and won the American League Platinum Glove for his defensive work.
The biggest trade has been a total bust though. Donaldson has slashed .207/.293/.385 in two years with the Yankees, and his $50 million price tag has hampered their team-building efforts. Kiner-Falefa has been who he always was – a glorified utility infielder overexposed as a starter. Cashman eschewed a free agent class of shortstops including Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Marcus Semien. This move was supposed to provide capable starters at catcher, third base, and shortstop, but the catcher’s injury necessitated another trade, the third baseman became a bust and an albatross, and the shortstop could barely hit the ball out of the infield.
Fast forward to the trade deadline a year ago. The Yankees were in free fall after a blistering first half. Aaron Judge was singlehandedly carrying the offense with a historic season, but reinforcements were necessary. Cashman made five deals. He acquired left fielder Andrew Benintendi for three pitching prospects, center fielder Harrison Bader for starter Jordan Montgomery, reliever Scott Effross for young right-hander Hayden Wesneski, starting pitcher Frankie Montas and relief pitcher Lou Trivino for three more up-and-coming arms as well as a middle infield prospect, and sent the beleaguered Joey Gallo out of town. In total, they shipped out seven of their best pitching prospects and a mid-rotation starter, completely depleting their system of arm talent, though they did get a Double-A righty in the Gallo deal.
Almost all of the trades blew up immediately. Montas started eight games with a 6.35 ERA. He will likely miss the entire 2023 season with a recurring shoulder injury – which was known prior to the trade! Trivino pitched well down the stretch, but an elbow strain will cost him the 2023 season. Effross appeared in 13 games, then tore his UCL to necessitate Tommy John surgery. Benintendi broke the hamate bone in his hand in September and missed the playoffs, then departed as a free agent. Bader was injured at the time of the trade but returned to have an outstanding postseason, including five home runs in nine games. However, he has been hurt off and on in 2023 and owns a .286 on-base percentage this season.
Moving ahead to this past winter, Cashman had a Swiss cheese roster that needed to be revamped at several positions. The club shelled out $360 million to bring back Judge, which was essential. They also re-signed Rizzo once again for two more years with a club option for a third. The biggest new additions were starting pitcher Carlos Rodón on a six-year deal – despite his history of arm ailments – and reliever Tommy Kahnle for two years. Inexplicably, Cashman made no trades for Major League players whatsoever. He reportedly tried to foist Donaldson and Aaron Hicks on some other club, but there were no takers. Even though he knew they were valueless, he had no real contingency plan for two wasted roster spots, resigned to turning important plate appearances into emptiness.
This meant rolling into the season with a thin starting rotation, no left fielder to speak of, an unproven rookie shortstop in Anthony Volpe, a third baseman who none of the other 29 clubs wanted, and an aging lineup core including LeMahieu (34 years old), Rizzo (33), and Stanton (33). It’s no surprise that the Yankees are limping along near .500, especially since Judge has spent 52 days on the injured list.
At this year’s trade deadline, Cashman had three feasible options:
Buy. Go find a left fielder, a catcher, and a starting pitcher to bolster the team for a playoff push.
Sell. Punt and shed some of the more desirable players on reasonable contracts while keeping the stars like Judge and Gerrit Cole, then regroup in the offseason.
Buy and sell. Trade away players on expiring contracts like Bader and Wandy Peralta, while acquiring long-term assets to plug lineup holes for this year and next.
Instead, he did … essentially nothing. He merely traded for unexceptional reliever Keynan Middleton and quad-A bust Spencer Howard, who has a 7.20 ERA over parts of three seasons. He did nothing to address the team’s .301 on-base percentage or the fact that they’ve averaged only 3.8 runs per game since the beginning of June.
There is no good explanation for Cashman’s inaction at the deadline. The front office appears confused, unprepared, directionless, and incapable of reading the market or thinking creatively. They have been overtaken by the rest of MLB as they fail to tread water. As a result, the roster has fallen into disarray with no discernable plan to move forward.
It’s worth remembering that these are the New York Yankees. They aren’t entitled to playoff appearances on name recognition alone, but they do have a massive market advantage. Their estimated franchise value increased from $6 billion to $7.1 billion just since last year, while no other MLB club is worth more than $5.2 billion. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to leverage their might into winning baseball games, just as they have for more than 100 years. That can only be possible if the person steering the ship can set the right course, but for the last two years, Cashman hasn’t been able to spot the horizon. It’s time to rethink whether he’s still the right navigator for the organization.
Daniel R. Epstein serves as co-director of the IBWAA. He writes for Baseball Prospectus and Off the Bench Baseball.