Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you know by now that Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez has been traded to the Cleveland Indians for a package of 4 players. They traded two of their best pitching prospects, one of whom is in AA and has ace potential and the other a MLB ready talent with a lower ceiling. According to Joel Sherman an equivalent Yankee package would have been Dellin Betances and Ivan Nova, which is a far cry from the “Herschel Walker type deal” the Rockies initially had asked for. When the Cleveland Indians GM is more bold than the New York Yankee GM, something is wrong with that picture. Maybe its a rookie mistake by 1st year GM Chris Antonetti, where the health concerns are very real and he will regret this trade in the coming years. Maybe the Indians are more motivated to get where the Yankees live on the win curve, since they’ve been down for so long. Or maybe the Yankee GM values his prospects too much, and has lost sight of who the Yankees are and their place in baseball.
We’re 6 years into the Brian Cashman youth movement, which was much needed when it began back in 2005. Back then, the Yanks had an aging, overpaid, under performing group that annually seemed to get off to slow starts and would cram their way to the playoffs in the dog days of August and Septembers filled with rookies, only to run out of gas once they got to the dance. The clubhouse was stodgy and joyless, the manager preferred veteran retreads over rookies, who he often accused of being intimidated by playing on the big stage that is the Bronx Bombers. Something had to change, so Brian Cashman seized control of baseball ops from a fading George Steinbrenner when he re-upped with the team in 05 and set out to rebuild the farm system.
The crown jewel of the system was a fellow who was actually drafted in early 2005 before Brian took over, selected with the compensation pick the Astros gave up for Andy Pettitte, one Phil Hughes. He dominated the minors and became so highly touted Hughes became the #1 pitching prospect in baseball by BA on their midseason list. He was destined for success at the MLB level, and would be the exemplar for the next wave of players Brian hoped to develop. But Phil’s career, which now spans the better parts of 5 seasons, tells a different story. He struggled in 07 and 08 to find his way in the majors, became a dominant middle reliever in 09 and had an above average in 2010, enjoying tremendous run support. 2011 has been a disaster, start to finish. All totaled, over the 5 seasons he has spent with the team he has amassed a grand total of (net) 3.0 WAR. Not this year, not last year, for his career. He currently falls into the Edwin Jackson category of #1 pitching prospects who have been big disappointments on the MLB level, and frankly he has a long way to go to match Jackson’s production (10.8 WAR 07-11). Joba Chamberlain was equally highly touted by BA, enjoyed similar success as a middle reliever in 2007 and as a starter in 08. His total contribution to the Yankees over the course of his 5 season career has been 5.4 WAR, and is currently recuperating from Tommy John surgery. The Yankees have been playoff contenders annually from 2007-present, but largely not from the contributions of these two players.
There have been many opportunities to trade Hughes and Chamberlain over the past 5 seasons for proven MLB starters, some of them elite. In retrospect, can anyone argue that the Yankees as an organization wouldn’t have been better off dealing away the prospect for the sure thing? When you’re talking about proven #1 or 2 MLB starters, those are too rare, too precious and become available too infrequently to pass us for the uncertainty of prospects. This is why prospect hugging doesn’t make sense for a team like the Yanks, who they are financially and where they are annually on the win curve. Joba and Hughes may have cost little, but they’ve contributed little as well. The Yankees traditionally care less about cost and more about getting elite production. To be sure, Hughes and Chamberlain’s careers are far from over. They may yet find the success the scouts all projected them to have. But the Yankees, with the pressure to perform and their annual expectations is not the place for those wet behind the ears to learn their craft. Even veteran free agents often struggle in their first year with the team. You can’t be in win-now mode and be waiting for prospects to develop at the same time. We saw that clearly in 2008, with the rookie troika fronting the rotation out of camp and the disastrous April that followed, culminating with the team missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Brian Cashman correctly understands that young pitching is the most precious commodity in baseball. All too often, by the time they hit free agency their best days are behind them. What he doesn’t seem to understand is what economists call an ‘opportunity cost’ where you wasted a spot on your roster that could have be utilized more productively. When you’re a team like the Yankees that tries to win it all annually, that’s a very real cost. Part of the process when dealing with young pitchers is getting lousy production out of them early on while they figure things out. In the meantime, you cost your team wins, while you wait for a train that may very well never arrive.
There’s something to be said for the win-now mentality, and while that approach can also have its limits (see Steinbrenner, George. 1980s) there’s a balance to be struck between the two. When it comes to young pitchers, I don’t think Brian strikes the correct balance. The Yankees sell their fans on being a team that is always in win-now mode, that always goes the extra mile to win championships. Anything less than a World Series title is considered to be a failed season. That doesn’t mesh with Brian Cashman’s prospect hugging approach toward midseason deals. When young, high end pitchers do hit the market, he finds some reason not to make the deal. He wouldn’t add Nunez to the Cliff Lee deal last year, and now he wouldn’t trade any of his prospects for someone who is 27, averages 94 MPH with his fastball, is grossly underpaid and was the best pitcher on the planet this time last year. There has to be a middle ground somewhere on when to hold onto a pitching prospect and when not to, but Brian Cashman doesn’t seem to know where it is. When it comes to keeping prospects in perspective, the Yankee GM has clearly lost his way.