How much praise, and criticism, does Yankees GM Brian Cashman deserve?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·8 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Brian Cashman up close with glasses on
Brian Cashman up close with glasses on

For a GM who is under immense pressure to win a championship in 2021, Brian Cashman had to feel validation of sorts watching Corey Kluber’s no-hitter on Wednesday night.

At worst, after all, he was right about Kluber’s potential to re-capture his two-time Cy Young Award-wining form.

At best, meanwhile, this was evidence that he acquired a legitimate Game 2 starter to pair with Gerrit Cole come October and give the Yankees a 1-2 punch to pave the way toward that elusive 28th championship.

Elusive is a relative term, of course, as the standard is different in the Bronx compared to every other franchise in baseball. Twelve years may as well be forever, even if it’s barely a drought compared to 35 years for the Mets.

Nevertheless, you only have to listen to talk-radio occasionally lately to sense the anti-Cashman brigade is particularly loud these days after a sluggish start to the 2021 season, even if if the Yankees’ outlook has brightened considerably over the last couple of weeks.

Fans were quick to blame the GM for not doing enough to fix a too-righthanded offense that hasn’t delivered timely hits in recent postseasons, and for putting together a starting rotation that will have to rely too heavily on reclamation projects Kluber and Jameson Taillon.

Is the criticism fair?

I asked major league executives past and present that question and while none wanted to be quoted by name, taking what could be perceived as shots at a popular colleague, the consensus opinion is that criticism comes with the territory for Cashman at this point.


May 19, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) celebrates after throwing a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field.
May 19, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) celebrates after throwing a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field.

“We all strive to have a team that contends every year,” said one current team exec, “and Cash has done that as well as anybody, high payroll or not. But if you’re the GM of the Yankees you know that more is expected, and when your team can’t get over the hump in the postseason for a bunch of years, fair or unfair you’re going to take the heat.

“In Cash’s case, I think it’s fair to hold him accountable if they fall short again - depending how it happens. He built the offense a certain way, going against the traditional model of left-handed power in Yankee Stadium because he believed in [Aaron] Judge and [Giancarlo] Stanton hitting right-handed pitching and going the other way to take advantage that right field porch. But if they can’t stay healthy, that becomes part of the equation.

“Also, they haven’t developed enough top-flight starting pitching, partly because they’ve had injuries to some their young guys. So they spent the huge money on Cole and then this year it was on Cash to come up with quality starters when the owner wasn’t going to let him take the payroll to that Dodger-stratosphere. He made calculated gambles on a couple of guys and now he hopes for the best.

“Kluber is starting to look like his old self. Cash knows a no-hitter doesn’t mean much in the big picture, but I have to believe it did his heart some good to see Kluber dominate that way.”

Not that this exec or any others I spoke to thinks Cashman’s 23-year run as Yankee GM would be in jeopardy if the gambles don’t pay off in the long run.

May 5, 2021; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton (27) celebrates with right fielder Aaron Judge (99) after hitting a two run home run against the Houston Astros during the third inning at Yankee Stadium.
May 5, 2021; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton (27) celebrates with right fielder Aaron Judge (99) after hitting a two run home run against the Houston Astros during the third inning at Yankee Stadium.

“Listen, nobody knows for sure what goes on in another organization,” said a former GM who knows Cashman well. “But I get a pretty good sense from the Yankee people I know that Cash has the trust of his owner, and Hal Steinbrenner gives every indication that he believes in process, which is important. And he’s never shown that he feels obligated to apologize or overreact the way his father did if his team if his team doesn’t win it all.

“But the one thing you never know for sure is whether there’s a point where the fans get loud enough to threaten the bottom line (attendance, TV ratings, etc.), and for business purposes ownership feels it has to make a change.”

Missing the postseason surely would result in such a level of frustration from Yankee fans who have come to expect championships on a regular basis. And that’s certainly not out of the question with the AL East looking tougher than expected, with four very competitive teams.

However, the Yankees’ offense appears to be rounding into form, and Cashman always gets his share of praise on that front, not only for signing D.J. LeMahieu but trading for Gleyber Torres and uncovering the better-than-expected talents of Luke Voit and Gio Urshela.

The Stanton trade may never be viewed fondly by Yankee fans who understand it was a knee-jerk reaction to losing out on Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ superstar whom Cashman wanted badly coming over from Japan.

But one former GM says that it would have been practically impossible for the Yankees to say no to the Stanton deal at the time.

“Stanton was still young, coming off an MVP season, and they got the Marlins to eat some of the salary,” he explained. “The Yankees also had created payroll flexibility at the time. I doubt if any of anyone in Cashman’s position, given their championship-branding, would have said no, even understanding that 10 years was a prohibitive length of contract for a guy who already had a history of injuries.”

Aug 28, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; New York Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (27) sits in the dugout during the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 28, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; New York Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (27) sits in the dugout during the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In any case, whatever the payroll/roster flexibility ramifications of the Stanton trade, pitching is more the issue that Yankee fans have always had with Cashman, forever citing his missteps in that department, from free-agent disasters such as Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Kei Igawa to trades that didn’t work out as hoped for the likes for Sonny Gray, James Paxton, Michael Pineda, and Javier Vasquez.

There was also the GM’s memorable decision to turn down a trade for a then-dominant Cliff Lee in July of 2010 because Seattle wanted either Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez in addition to the agreed-upon Jesus Montero and Zach McCallister.

On the other hand, of course, Cashman also made the then-unpopular decision not to trade for Johan Santana going into the 2008 season, correctly fearing a decline ahead for the Twins’ lefty while believing he could convince CC Sabathia to come east as a free agent the next year. And obviously that decision was vital to the Yankees’ 2009 championship, their only one since the Joe Torre dynasty of 1996-2000.

Furthermore the GM should always get credit, strictly from a baseball point of view, for swooping in and taking advantage of a depressed market for Aroldis Chapman, getting him on the cheap in a trade from the Cincinnati Reds after the Cuban star’s domestic violence incident surfaced publicly, killing an agreed-upon trade with the Dodgers. And to then trade him to the Cubs for Torres only to re-sign Chapman as a free agent was also some championship-caliber GM-ing.

Jul 5, 2017; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda (35) pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 5, 2017; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda (35) pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the many poor outcomes on pitching decisions adds scrutiny to the signing of Kluber to a one-year, $11 million deal, which baseball sources say was at least a few million more than the next highest bidder, believed to be the Toronto Blue Jays.

The trade for Taillon is more of a low-cost risk, since he’s only making $2.25 million via arbitration. And despite his inconsistency there is hope that at age 29 he’ll recover from missing most of the last two seasons due to Tommy John surgery and reach his once-projected high ceiling.

As for Kluber, it’s not as if there were a ton of alternative options for Cashman, partly because of Steinbrenner’s insistence on keeping the payroll under the luxury-tax threshold. But he likely could have convinced Masahiro Tanaka to come back if he’d really tried. Or he could have stretched the budget to sign Charlie Morton; he could have spent similarly to sign Jake Odorizzi or Taijuan Walker; he could have traded for Lance Lynn or Joe Musgrove.

All of those moves would have been considered safer than signing Kluber, but you can make the case that none of them offered as much potential for dominance … if all were to go well.

The doubts surfaced quickly after an underwhelming spring training and then some shaky early-season starts, but as Kluber began to find his footing his velocity ticked up into the low 90s, his slider again resembled its once-wicked self, and the righthander commanded an effective change-up.

The result is a 1.78 ERA over his last five starts, including the no-hitter against the Texas Rangers.

Yet May is a long way from October.

“The reason the bidding wasn’t higher on Kluber,” a current exec told me, “is the concern that at his age (35) he’ll eventually break down or just wear down after basically not pitching the last two years.

“I’m not saying it wasn’t a good gamble for the Yankees, when you factor in the position they’re in. And I’m not saying Cash shouldn’t feel good about the no-hitter. I’m just saying he’s a long way from collecting on his bet.”

That’s fair. And I think most Yankee fans realize that Cashman on the whole has been a very good GM, but there has long been a segment of the fandom that believes he’s gotten a pass from the media when one championship in the last 20 years is downright-un-Yankee-like, no matter how much harder it has gotten to win a title during that time, with the extra tier of playoffs and the measures adopted by MLB to penalize big-spending teams in various ways.

In any case, this year that anti-Cashman brigade has seemed particularly loud. If nothing else, then, Kluber’s no-no at least lowered the volume a bit.