By the time the Yankees reported for spring training in mid-February, Brian Cashman had morphed from cold emperor behind the Evil Empire to a humbled executive who worried about job security. It was like somebody pulled back the curtain and exposed him as, you know, a real person.
Cashman had been emboldened by limitless resources that fueled the Yankees' machine after he became general manager of the storied franchise in 1998. At 30, he was the second-youngest GM in the major league history. The decision was validated months later when the Yanks won 114 games and the World Series.
Three more championships would follow before his boss – The Boss – George Steinbrenner died in 2010. Cashman continued conducting business as usual, electing to outspend rather than outsmart teams, always making sure he had star power and enough gate attractions to keep Yankee Stadium humming along.
Everybody else, namely the Red Sox, resented luxuries granted to the Yankees for no reason other than they were the Yankees. Cashman operated at a distance while capitalizing on built-in advantages over other teams. He was always one of them, never one of us, before he reinvented his approach last season.
Now, three months before his 50th birthday, he has become more palatable than ever to baseball fans who for years watched him operate with an open checkbook. He has one year left on his contract and no assurances about his future. He's faced with the tough task of winning this season and simultaneously preparing for the years ahead.
"I'm hoping I'll be here in 2018-19," Cashman told reporters in Tampa when spring training opened. "That means I better focus now."
Manager Joe Girardi also enters the final year of his contract. If the Bronx Bombers contend for the playoffs, a tall order for a young team in a competitive division with the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles (oh, and the Rays), they'll be retained. If they fall short, the Yanks could look in another direction.
OK, so the Yankees had an awakening. While sobering, and refreshing, let's not lose sight of the fact that they're still the Yankees.
They needed a closer and brought back flame-throwing lefty Aroldis Chapman, signing him to a five-year deal worth $86 million after trading him to the World Series-winning Cubs last season. It was the biggest contract ever handed to a closer, a reminder they still knew how to reach for their wallet.
Cashman has the second-highest payroll in baseball behind the Dodgers, but it comes with an asterisk. Alex Rodriguez is on the books for $21 million after the Yankees forced him into retirement to make room for players who were younger and better. A-Rod now is a grossly overpaid instructor.
Designated hitter Matt Holliday will replace Rodriguez. Unlike years past, the Yankees didn't spend a fortune getting him. Holliday signed a one-year deal for $13 million after batting .246 last season and banging 20 homers. They signed Chris Carter for one year at $3.5 million after he hit 40 HRs last season.
Who knew Cashman could show restraint?
Five years ago, the Yankees by far had the highest payroll in baseball. They spent $48 million more than the Phillies in 2012 and $89 million more than the Giants, who won the World Series that year. Last season, New York spent $50 million less than the Dodgers. For the Yanks, it passes for discipline.
And look at their farm system. For years, it served as a wasteland for draft picks who played a few years in the minors before getting traded away in desperate quick-fix attempts to address greater flaws. Cashman resisted the urge last July and made a U-turn, signaling a change in his approach.
Chapman was shipped to Chicago for prospects. Cashman received a nice haul from the Indians for Andrew Miller that included Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield. They made a commitment to catcher Gary Sanchez, 23, after seeing him hit 20 homers and bat .299 in 53 games last season. It allowed Cashman to unload Brian McCann for pitching prospects Albert Abreau and Jorge Guzman, lowering payroll.
Mark Teixeira gracefully retired after last season. It was just as well considering the Yankees already had settled on the winner of a 2017 spring-training battle between Greg Bird, 24, and Tyler Austin, 25. Austin suffered a broken foot early in spring training, but he could make a push once he recovers and regains his timing.
The Yanks' biggest issue coming out of spring training was replacing shortstop Didi Gregorius, who is expected to be sidelined for the first month with a strained shoulder. In other years, Cashman would be reaching into his bag of prospects and looking to wheel and deal.
The new-and-improved Cashman was seeking answers within without disrupting long-term plans. Ronald Torreyes, 24, is expected to be the starter at shortstop while Gregorius recovers. Tyler Wade, 22, will start the season at Scranton/Wilkes Barre as veteran shortstop Pete Kozma signed with the team as a utility infielder.
At least Cashman had options.
“I think Brian’s right," Girardi told reporters. "We're in transition. It started at the end of July last year, when we started bringing up younger players and relying on them more. I’m excited about it. I think there’s a lot of talent in that room and we’re going to get a chance to see it play out."
Over the past seven years, perhaps more, there were numerous reasons to fire Cashman and Girardi. Cashman had no excuse for an underachieving roster he built with the Yanks money machine. Strange but true, because he made so many mistakes, the Yanks were forced into an old-school rebuild.
Cashman was lucky to keep his job and begin cleaning up his own mess. The Yankees will be younger and should be better than they had been in the recent past. Fans have been told patience will be required. Many embraced the old-school approach, new to the Bronx, even if it meant the Yanks fell short.
Either way, Cashman's expertise, or lack thereof, will be exposed. Don't be surprised if he comes away looking better than expected and is given a contract extension to continue what he started. At minimum, the same calculating man who was behind the empire already has restored dignity to his office.
Pull back the curtain.
Brian Cashman looks like a real general manager.