Here’s a scoop, straight from the floor at the general managers meetings: Brian Cashman listens to sports talk radio.
“I’ve heard a lot of things,” the New York Yankees GM said Wednesday. “(After) last year, we had CC (Sabathia), Phil Hughes coming off injury, and (Ivan) Nova finished the season hurt. So, people are like, ‘They’ve got one starter. That’s it. What are they going to do?’ … We won 95 games.”
Cashman wonders if the callers think the team finished with 59 victories, not 95.
“If we won the whole thing, people wouldn’t have been surprised at all,” he said. “If this team got hot, they were talented. They were deep. Then we got knocked out. ‘This team’s old. They gotta get younger. What are they doing?’ I’m used to it. It’s something that hits us every year.”
This is why Cashman might have the hardest job of any GM in the sport. The Yankees just reached the postseason for the 17th time in 18 years — which has never happened in the history of the game — and he’s not allowed to celebrate.
Now, Cashman is in for one of the most arduous offseasons of his career.
“Right now,” he acknowledged, “we’ve got some gaping holes.”
This isn’t an attempt to amplify the panic on Cashman’s AM dial. His history in the Bronx — 15 seasons, 14 postseason appearances — suggests that the 2013 Yankees will find their way to the playoffs no matter how pockmarked their roster appears today. Every year the Yankees’ lineup is heavy on talent and professionalism. The franchise’s resources and allure make it so.
An example: When it looked as if the Yankees would begin the 2012 season with a mediocre rotation, Cashman acquired Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda — on the same January day. Although Pineda didn’t pitch at all this year because of shoulder surgery, Kuroda became the team’s most reliable starter.
But this is a different winter, with unique challenges. Never before has Cashman faced such uncertainty with the core players who remain the soul of the team. Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter are rehabilitating from major injuries, and Andy Pettitte hasn’t told Cashman whether he intends to pitch in 2013.
Cashman must accomplish three objectives: build a championship-caliber team, honor ownership’s plan to reduce the payroll to $189 million by 2014, and offer appropriate contracts to Rivera and Pettitte — proud players accustomed to earning top dollar.
Aside from those themes, the Yankees have a number of more specific concerns.
• The starting rotation lacks depth. (Where have we heard this before?) Sabathia underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from his throwing elbow after the season, and no one knows what sort of impact that could have on his 200-inning reliability. While Hughes improved in 2012, Nova regressed. Cashman is high on Phelps’ potential, but he has made only 11 starts in the major leagues.
Objectively speaking, the Yankees need at least two more starting pitchers. Maybe they will be Kuroda and Pettitte. But at 38 and 40 on Opening Day, respectively, how much can Cashman expect from each of them?
• Pineda, who was supposed to lead the next wave of New York starters, may not make his Yankees debut until midway through next season — roughly 18 months after Cashman sent away the club’s top position player prospect (Jesus Montero) to acquire him. “It’s best for us to pretend he’s not even there and then have him sneak up on us,” Cashman said of Pineda. “I hope he does. But I’m not going to count on him.”
• Cashman declined to say whether the Yankees have allocated enough money to re-sign both Rivera and substitute closer Rafael Soriano. The doubt surrounding Rivera’s knee at age 43 would suggest the Yankees should sign another reliever capable of closing — whether it’s the expensive Soriano or someone else.
• Right fielder Nick Swisher is a free agent, and Cashman already is speaking of him in the past tense. (“Nick Swisher was awesome for us,” he said at one point Wednesday, adding that Swisher is both a “helluva player” and a “helluva dude.”) As lost as Swisher looked in the postseason, he has been a reliable presence in the lineup since 2009. If he leaves, Cashman will need to procure a legitimate power threat — Justin Upton? Shin-Soo Choo? — particularly if Brett Gardner (15 career home runs) returns as the everyday left fielder.
Ichiro Suzuki may return, but a starting outfield with two singles hitters would seem odd at Yankee Stadium. Could Cashman overhaul the lineup by trading Curtis Granderson?
• The Yankees have four catchers on their 40-man roster: Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside. None is considered a true starter at the position, with the ability to hit while playing every day. “Really good catch-and-throw framers,” Cashman said. “The question mark’s the bats.”
• Last but (obviously) not least: Jeter’s broken ankle and Alex Rodriguez’s continued decline have raised immediate questions about how much they will be able to play on the left side of the infield in 2013 — and how effective they can be there. Jeter is 38. A-Rod is 37. They are going to need more days off, so Cashman must acquire or develop versatile infielders to fill in for them.
Oh, and he must do it on a budget. Whether the talk-show crowd realizes it or not, the Yankees are operating differently than they used to. Now it’s a question of how much longer the results will stay the same.
If you ask Cashman whether he feels good about the team right now, the answer is no.
“I’ve never felt good,” he said dryly. “I feel good about the process. I feel good about the people I rely on. I feel good about the ownership group and their commitment to winning. I’m confident that our track record continues. We put forth really strong teams for a reason. We have great scouts. This is a place players want to play. Just because they’re older players doesn’t mean they can’t play.”
The Yankees have had the right plan, 17 times in the last 18 years. We’ll see if they can continue defying the odds and make it 18 for 19.