Yankees Magazine: Method Man

In the hundreds of decisions Brian Cashman makes daily, none is arrived at lightly. That may be the key to his -- and the Yankees' -- success

March 26th, 2018
New York Yankees

Spend an hour with Brian Cashman, and his phone will ring no fewer than five times. Email notifications will chime so frequently that you figure there is no chance he will ever reach "Inbox Zero." The choo choo of a train car -- a new text message, obviously -- blares every few minutes. Every alert at least briefly draws his attention to his cellphone, which is always within arm's reach. But not all are created equal. He'll answer some immediately, save some for later, scoff at others. Prioritization is a must.
Most of those messages, calls and emails are about the players that the Yankees' general manager has acquired through the years. They're filled with the latest insights into the names that Cashman -- along with a vociferous fan base -- hopes will bring the Yankees their 28th championship. The analytics department sends over the latest progress report on Prospect X. A rival team is inquiring about Player Y. Eventually, anything important enough reaches Cashman's desk, and he'll make a call based on one question: Will this move make the Yankees better?
After the team fell just one win short of the 2017 World Series, Cashman went into the offseason with that one question constantly on his mind. Baseball America's 2017 MLB Executive of the Year led a methodical search for a new manager, added an MVP outfielder and opened up spots on the roster for which prospects could compete and, in doing so, prove that the process continues to work apace.

At some point, though, everything is out of Cashman's hands; the product is on the field. As Cashman's crew readied for the 2018 season, he sat down with Yankees Magazine senior editor Hilary Giorgi to discuss the wins, the losses, the times he found lightning in a bottle, and how excited he is to have a front-row seat for it all.
You've been doing this job for a long time now. What do you still love about it? How has it changed in two decades?
I like the action. I like the whole planning aspect of things -- trying to construct rosters that will lead to success, or various levels of success if, in the end, you're not the last team standing. Those challenges are what drive me. Working together with a group of people trying to find a way to win; it's a challenge but it's fun, and I still have a lot of passion for it.
It's changed a lot over the years. There's a whole new world order with the way that analytics have entered and dominated offices throughout the game. It's made us better at our decision-making; we're more efficient and effective with our decisions because we have better information that we can rely on. One of the things I'm proud about is being able to guide the Yankees into the new world order of analytics, performance science and mental skills - departments that didn't exist when I first started here.
This offseason you were recognized as the top executive in the game. What does an award like that mean to you?
Those awards are really organizational awards, and they're representational of a collective group effort from domestic and international amateur scouting, to pro scouting, to player development and our medical teams and performance science and analytics groups. They shine a spotlight on the general manager, but it's really a reflection of the amazing, talented front office, field staff and scouting staff that the Steinbrenners have allowed us to assemble. So it's a recognition of their collective good decision-making that has served this franchise well in the more recent years.
Is there a rivalry among GMs? You all are chasing the exact same goal. How does that fuel you, and how does it complicate the process of working together?
I want all the wins. I want all the American League East teams, especially, to lose and then, secondarily, I want the rest of the American League competition to lose. And when there's interleague play, I want the National League teams to win all the time.
Ultimately, the job is to win every game possible. The flip side of that is somebody's got to lose. So yeah, that's competition in its simplest form.
I appreciate when people have a game plan -- when they have the discipline to execute it and then results follow. I can appreciate that from afar; I've got great respect for that, whether it's in our sport or other sports. You can separate the competition in that way. I don't respect people who go about their business in a bad way, and I root against those people even further. But I don't have to root for somebody to appreciate and respect good work when I see it.
We talked before last season about how you had to become a seller in 2016 for one of the first times. Can you take me through the frustration of that but then almost immediately seeing the rewards your efforts allowed you to reap?
It's all about having a plan and a strategy, and connecting as many good decisions together as you can throughout a process. You're never going to be perfect, but if you can string along enough good decisions then the results will bear fruit over time. That small window of opportunity to sell was us assessing where we were and deciding what the best next decision would be. We felt very strongly that selling off certain assets at a certain price tag was vitally important to us. The healthiest franchises, I think, are the ones that are in complete alignment from ownership through their top executives and down. And that was an example of it. Despite having a lot of discussions about what we should or shouldn't be doing, Hal Steinbrenner gave us the green light and the sign of the cross to move forward, which showed we were, as a franchise, completely aligned in what was the best next step for us. I think that's when the magic can happen, when examples of alignment are 110 percent pure. They were in that case, and thankfully it served us well.
From the outside looking in, some people were surprised by how quickly you were able to turn the team around -- they were expecting a longer rebuilding process. What were your expectations?
I was surprised. We had a lot of things go well for us. You don't typically have everything hit all at once -- you have to be good, you have to be healthy, and you have to be lucky. Hopefully those things stay in our favor as we move forward, but yeah, it came about quicker than I would have predicted privately. And I'm happy for that, clearly, but I can't tell you in all honesty that after 2016 I would have said we would be in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2017.

Didi Gregorius was really the first guy from this group who turned the tide as a young player, producing at one of the most important positions on the field. What was the thought process when you acquired him, and did you foresee the highly productive fan favorite he would become?
Obviously and unfortunately we didn't have an internal candidate to take over when Derek Jeter retired. That was a self-created problem. It's not like we didn't want to have someone to plug and play, it's just sometimes things don't work out that way, so we were in a bad spot. We had targeted a number of players throughout the game we were interested in, and Didi was one of them. Our pro scouting department was pushing strongly for him and [vice president of baseball operations] Tim Naehring was absolutely in love with this player, believed in his ceiling and was pounding the desk saying that if this is a guy we can get, we must.
We wound up doing a three-way deal with the Diamondbacks and Tigers. I'm thankful that it worked, but it was not an easy decision. We did value a great deal, but it was one of the many pivotal decisions we had to make during this process. I was taught in years gone by about team-building and how vitally important it is to be strong up the middle from catcher to middle infield to center field. And we had a massive hole at the most important position on the field, absent the catcher. So I had to wrestle with 30 starts from Shane Greene or 150-plus starts from an everyday shortstop. And when you just boil it down to that in its simplicity, even though we're robbing Peter to pay Paul by losing a rotation piece, that's how we based our decision.
Has Didi exceeded your expectations?
Maybe mine. Not Tim Naehring's. I think he's living up to Tim Naehring's ceiling. We had a lot of people who were extremely high on him. Tim had him as a well-above-average player, in terms of his ceiling. And Didi has proved him correct.
How much does your gut play into situations like that or trades like that?
Never. To me, there is no room for gut decisions in any way, shape or form. You have to make smart decisions on behalf of ownership because these are assets that are very valuable and vitally important pieces in franchises throughout the country. There's no room for gut decisions in a situation like that. You have to make the most informed decision you can make, and then pray it works.
Speaking of high-value assets, you got a pretty big one this year in . What was the process of putting that deal together? Do you even sleep when you're working on deals of that magnitude?
It is constant but, yes, I do sleep. I started the process down at the GM meetings when he was made available. Our first priority, though, was , from Japan because he wanted to be a two-way player. He would have fit nicely in our rotation, and we had a vacancy at the DH spot. So as I was preparing and recruiting the Ohtani avenue, as a fallback position -- and I hate to call it that, but it was a fallback -- I said, "Let me do some recon on Stanton because if we don't get Ohtani, Stanton would fit."
So you're watching the media reports, and they're talking about the Giants and the Cardinals and the recognition that the Marlins were going to offset some of the money that he's got on his contract. All these things were vital information pieces for me. There was no guarantee Ohtani was going to pick us, so I said, "Just in case, let me do some recon, have some conversations." And I followed whatever the media reports were. I thought, "Hey, there might be some opportunity here."
When Ohtani declared that he wasn't going to any team east of the Mississippi and no Major League team that has Spring Training in Florida, then I did a full-court press with the Marlins.
The key piece here is that Stanton had a full no-trade clause, so he could direct the time, effort and interest levels of where he ultimately would decide to go -- if he would go anywhere at all. To use a surfing analogy, you have to have some waves break a certain way, and we had some waves break favorably for us to allow him to land here in New York. I think once the Marlins realized that he wasn't going to the Giants, and he wasn't going to the Cardinals, and they were forced to deal with a small group of teams, they cut the best deal they could and they got what they needed, which was salary relief and some high-end prospects with huge ceilings from us. And we got a huge bat to add to this dynamic offense that's really exciting for us.

Did the Yankees actually need Stanton? Surely you can understand why to some people it seems like just an embarrassment of riches.
Well, in terms of team-building I would say we did need Giancarlo Stanton. My job is always to help our strengths remain our strengths and to attack areas of weakness. The 2017 team, which was one of the strongest offensive teams in the game last year, did still have some areas of weakness: third base, DH and first base. We did not have the production out of the DH position that we hoped for. So the Stanton acquisition solidifies that -- whether he's in the outfield and is DHing at times or if Judge is in the outfield and he's DHing -- and it gives us a massive weapon of success. So I feel we significantly attacked an area of weakness in our lineup with an exponentially impactful player.
So I would disagree that we didn't need Stanton. We just didn't expect to go top shelf when we went to market. But that opportunity existed and we reached high and, with ownership's blessing, we were able to get a significant and hopefully impactful player.
When you pick up a player such as Stanton you hear the usual refrain of haters saying, "That's just the Yankees being the Yankees and doing it because they can." How do you respond to those criticisms?
I don't care. Nobody said that when went to the Red Sox. Nobody said that when or went to the Cubs. No one said that when was traded to the Astros last summer. You're only allowed 25 spots on a roster, so it's not like the Yankees have hoarded all the great talent throughout the game. But what we have done recently is we have cultivated some of the game's great young talent, which allows every now and then for some splurge shopping via trade or free agency. Because we have young, high-end, cheap-salaried players, that has allowed us to import someone as significant as Stanton with the contract exposure he has. So we're lucky, but we have not been those big-spending, grabbing Yankees those types of comments would lead you to believe.
What can you say about the way Aaron Judge became a household name last year? Drafting him in the first round in 2013, you knew he was going to hit some home runs, but could you ever have predicted this?
I don't think anybody saw that coming. When [vice president of domestic amateur scouting] Damon Oppenheimer and his domestic amateur scouting program made the decision to select Aaron Judge, it was a high-risk, high-reward type of decision. You knew you had an extremely powerful athlete that was capable of a lot of things, but despite the ceiling that he had, no one ever expected what he just did in his first full season in the Big Leagues.
has been huge for the team, but he has endured some struggles and criticisms throughout the years. What was it like to see him grow into the player he has become? And with a player of his caliber, how much is it about just having patience?
He's a dynamic player with skills on both sides of the ball -- one of the best catchers in the entire game at 24 years of age. He's a big difference-maker for us, and we're lucky to have him. To watch the trials and tribulations of his development program and our scouting department saying that, "Yes, this player is a must-keep and any trade offers, you've got to swat away," I appreciate the impact of that personnel. Our analytics side saying, "No, no, do not trade this guy, he's going to be an above-average player for a long time." It gives us all great pride to see where he's at in his career and the star he has become.
It must be somewhat challenging to ask people to trust you in that situation, to ask ownership and the fans to believe you when you say, "No, this guy is worth holding on to," during a rough patch.
I don't look at it like, "Trust me," as much as it's more like a highly stressful situation, you're making informed decisions, you're standing by those decisions, and you're praying over time that they're going to work the way you desperately need them to work. Sometimes you crap out. We've got to trust the process and then let it take us where it's going to take us. That process -- and the discipline behind that process -- has served us well more times than not, we have benefitted from it, so that's why we trust the process. But from a fan's perspective, I get it. They're fanatics, and they don't trust anything other than wins and losses and good performance versus bad.
In 2017, you had a Cy Young finalist in , a Rookie of the Year and MVP finalist in Judge, and several All-Stars all coming together and exceeding expectations. Why, despite that success, did you want a new manager to come in and lead the way?
I think we're definitely looking for the same results in terms of affecting the win column, but I think we just felt it was the time and place for a new voice, for new engagement and a fresh start. I have tough decisions to make, and as great a manager that Joe Girardi is and will continue to be, maybe there is an expiration period to leadership effectiveness from the dugout. And after 10 years, there was a sense coming from within that clubhouse that it was time for a change. So I reacted to that and opened up a process that led us to Aaron Boone. And hopefully he'll be impacting us in a positive way, so we'll see where it takes us. My job is to make sure that the New York Yankees and their fan base have the best opportunities at all levels at all times. With that, I wasn't afraid of making a very difficult choice.
Were there any surprises or fears going into the process of hiring a new manager?
Yes. No question. The fears are that you don't want to make a mistake. Every time you go to marketplace, whether it's a trade, free agency, hiring an employee, a manager, coach, scout, front office personnel, every decision is made answering the question, Is this going to make us better as a franchise? Does this get us closer to representing the best franchise we can possibly be as we move forward? That takes a lot of careful planning and effort. It was a very deliberate, slow interview process. But I always said it's going to take as long as it takes until we get the right outcome. We weren't going to rush into it.
We went into it with an open mind and were surprised with the candidate who ultimately won out. If you asked me at the beginning, that would have surprised me. But I'm very comfortable with the decision that was made because of how the process went.

What did you like about Aaron Boone? How did he blow you away?
He was impressive at every level. His content, his baseball intellect, his ability to communicate, relate and engage with all personnel, his connections throughout baseball, his open-mindedness and willingness to pull information from all sources. I was extremely impressed. We walked out of that meeting and one of my personnel with me turned and said, "Could that be real?" And I said, "We might find out." Sure enough, we continued our process, went through whatever other interviews we had left, then circled back and it was a unanimous decision on who was the No. 1 candidate.
He loves to compete. He's addicted to it. He's got some unfinished business. He got into the World Series -- he got us there with his home run against the Red Sox -- but the Marlins beat us, so there's unfinished business there. He was constantly being pulled back to the field and thinking about how he could get back into the game of competing against an opponent on the field and finding a way to beat their [rear end]. He's going to have that chance now.
You have a great product in the Major Leagues, but in the Minors, too, you've seen success. And you've said before that a prospect is just someone who hasn't done anything yet.
Potential means you haven't made it yet.
Having said that, how much pride do you take in the farm system you have and the players you've been developing?
A great deal of pride, there's no doubt about it. There are so many people directly involved in acquiring the talent, whether it's via trade, the draft, through the international signing process, and then once they're plugged in, the developmental programs that are applied to do everything that allows these players to reach or approach their ceilings. It's great to see that progress is being made, but it's also great to reflect and understand how the industry is overwhelmingly recognizing that we've got a strong program in place that seems to be allowing us to dominate in the development field. It's something we're really proud of.
Are you trepidatious when guys graduate to the Big Leagues, or are you excited?
I'm always excited when somebody new comes up. Whether it's a high-end guy who people have high expectations and showed patience for, such as Greg Bird, Sanchez or Judge, or someone that sneaks up on you more such as . You're always curious to see how they handle this stage, which is the biggest stage within our industry. Some handle it better than others, but it's always fun to watch it play out.
What's the best part of being the GM of the New York Yankees?
The bottom line is the only fun comes when you're winning. That's really it. It's a horrible chair to be sitting in when you're not having success. But it's a great chair to be sitting in with a front-row seat if you're part of success. That's the trick. We're all trying to be massively successful and then to maintain it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. If you would like to listen to portions of this interview, listen and subscribe to the Yankees Magazine Podcast at www.yankees.com/podcast.