Commentary

The GM has a right to be wrong

Give Brian Cashman credit for sticking to his guns on Rafael Soriano signing

Updated: January 20, 2011, 8:21 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Let me start by saying I respect the hell out of Brian Cashman for sticking to his principles, for having the integrity not to lie or back down or change his story regarding Rafael Soriano.

The general manager of the New York Yankees may be a lot of things, but weasel is not one of them.

He was against the Soriano deal from the start. He told the media so. More importantly, he told his bosses.

They went ahead and made the deal anyway, and at the news conference to announce the signing Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, Cashman repeated his position without embellishment or alteration or hedging. It was a masterful show of independence and integrity and it was to be admired.

At the same time, I respectfully disagree with his position. In fact, I think he was dead wrong to have opposed the move at all.

Soriano makes the Yankees better. A lot better. Cashman acknowledged as much. And that says it all about who was right and who was wrong in this one.

Cashman's reasons, both public and private, were sound and logical. And despite his insistence that he understands the way businesses work and was not angered by having been overruled, there were undertones of dissatisfaction in his statements to the media. He had, quite noticeably, not communicated with reporters since the deal was made last Thursday.

At the news conference, he wondered about the wisdom of paying closer-type money to a setup man and took issue with the belief that a No. 1 pick at the back end of the draft isn't really worth much, anyway.

And in private he had previously expressed reservations about committing a lot of time and money to a guy with a spotty track record off the field, a supremely talented player who managed to make enemies of Joe Maddon and, reportedly, Bobby Cox -- managers known to be pretty easy to get along with.

After all, if the Yankees were going to overspend for a set-up guy, they could have given $4 million or $5 million to Kerry Wood, who locked down the eighth inning for the second half of last season about as well as Soriano will this year.

And hadn't his bosses given him a mandate -- along with, of course, winning multiple World Series championships -- to pare down the payroll and develop the farm system?

In the two years since Hal Steinbrenner took over the operation of the team and issued Cashman's marching orders, along with a supposed promise of "full autonomy,'' the Yankees won one World Series and came within two wins of going to another.

The payroll, which had reached a bloated $220 million a couple of years ago, stood at around a relatively lean $170 million before Hal signed off on team president Randy Levine's trap-door-loaded, three-year, $35 million deal for Soriano.

And according to Cashman, at least, the farm system boasts as many as 10 young arms that could be major league ready, including two considered to have top-of-the-rotation potential, as soon as next season.

The implication was clear: He had done everything asked of him. So why wasn't his judgment on this issue being respected and implemented?

Simply put, because it was wrong.

Certainly, the deal the Yankees agreed to with Soriano and his agent, Scott Boras, is massively weighted in favor of the player. The provisions allowing him to opt out after each of the first two years are a player's dream. Soriano can essentially renegotiate this deal two more times before it runs out.

They also give the association between Soriano and the Yankees the feel of a trial run more than a true alliance. Just as the player can choose to leave the Yankees at any time, so too do the Yankees retain the right to trade Soriano, which will not be easy considering the numbers on the contract.

No general manager would agree to such an arrangement, and as Cashman made clear, no general manager did. This deal was the brainchild of Levine, who negotiated it directly with Boras -- or, more likely, the other way around.

Clearly, the Yankees' president has more of a say in baseball matters than a lot of team presidents, and in this instance at least, clearly had more influence than Cashman did. There are also indications that while Cashman wanted to play hardball in the negotiations with Derek Jeter, Levine's voice was loud in those discussions as well, and in the end, the Yankees, who through their GM appeared not willing to budge, budged more than a little bit.

In a way, it almost takes you back to the offseason of 2007, when after Cashman had publicly proclaimed he would not negotiate with Alex Rodriguez if the slugger opted out of his contract, Hank Steinbrenner stepped in and overruled his GM, giving A-Rod 10 more years, and a raise, without any competition.

Cashman had every right to be angry with that deal, and I would be surprised if he is not more than a little uncomfortable with Levine's growing influence in areas that are traditionally the realm of the GM. (Right now, in fact, they are on opposite sides of the fourth-outfielder debate, with Cashman an Andruw Jones man and Levine in favor of bringing back Johnny Damon. It will be interesting to see who wins that one.)

But that is office politics, and while Cashman might be on the right side of those issues, he was on the wrong side of this debate.

Strapped for starting pitching, the Yankees needed Soriano, if only to take some of the pressure off their aging closer and their threadbare rotation. And once Wood signed his lifetime deal with the Chicago Cubs, there really weren't a lot of choices to fill the vital role of set-up man for Mariano.

And by Cashman's own admission, his singleminded and ultimately failed pursuit of Cliff Lee might well have diverted his attention from other options. Although which indispensable pitcher he missed out on signing while chasing Lee is anyone's guess.

Some questionable decisions aside, Cashman has done an admirable job in an unenviable position. But the bottom line is, fans only care about winning on the field, not about who is winning in the front office or the back rooms.

And as even Cashman was forced to admit, having Soriano gives the Yankees a much better chance to win than not having him.

So while I fully understand Cashman's position and sympathize with his plight, I've got to question his judgment on this one.

The onerous contract and loss of a draft pick aside, adding Rafael Soriano to the bullpen makes the Yankees a better team. This week, it gives the fans a reason to hope and it makes manager Joe Girardi's job a heckuva lot easier.

At the same time, Cashman's job has undoubtedly gotten harder.

But that goes with the territory of being the Yankees' GM, a position Brian Cashman has survived in now for 13 years, longer than anyone else in the Steinbrenner era.

That, too, is a reason to respect Cashman. And to sympathize with him.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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