By Murray Chass

December 31, 2009

The Yankees won the World Series last Nov. 4, and Brian Cashman began working in earnest Nov. 5. Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, has no trophy to show for his off-season efforts, but he has already won the unofficial prize for winter maneuvers by club executives.Brian Cashman 225

Most people, including me, were not awarding Cashman any prizes in the off-season two years ago when he passed up the chance to trade for Johan Santana, whom the Minnesota Twins were willing to give the Yankees. Cashman had other plans but didn’t let us in on them. We had to wait a year to find out what they were.

Cashman executed those plans last off-season. After the Yankees failed to reach the post-season for the first time since 1993, Cashman staged a free-agent signing blitz, securing CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira and laying the groundwork for the franchise’s 27th World Series championship.

Cashman also traded for Nick Swisher, but his primary efforts came with money – $423.5 million of it. This off-season Cashman has demonstrated his trading acumen.

“This winter offered better choices in the trade market than the free-agent market,” he explained.

Which is not to say that Cashman didn’t take care of free-agent business he had to take care of. He signed Andy Pettitte to continue his service in the starting pitching rotation, and he signed Nick Johnson to take the place of two veteran members of the Yankees’ lineup – Hideki Matsui as designated hitter and Johnny Damon as the No, 2 hitter in the batting order.

“It wasn’t Matsui versus Nick Johnson,” Cashman said, alluding to the DH. “What I wound up doing was to evaluate Johnson as a No. 2 guy versus Damon.”

But Cashman saved his best work for the trade market, acquiring a starting center fielder, Curtis Granderson, and two weeks later a starting pitcher, Javier Vazquez.

Teams everywhere are desperately seeking starting pitchers, and Cashman came up with a pitcher who last season had 15 wins (10 losses), tied for fourth in the National League; a 2.87 earned run average, sixth; .223 opponents’ batting average, fifth; 238 strikeouts, second; 1.81 walks per nine inning, second, and 219 1/3 innings, fifth.

And Cashman got Vazquez to be their No. 4 starter behind Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte. No. 5 will come from the collection of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre.

The Braves didn’t even want to trade the 33-year-old Vazquez; they preferred trading Derek Lowe because of the difference in their contracts and their ages. Lowe, at 36 three years older than Vazquez, has three years left at $15 million a year. Vazquez is entering the last year of his contract with a salary of $11.5 million.

Javier Vazquez 225“We had scouting meetings and ranked available players,” Cashman related. “Vazquez has always graded out extremely high. I made an offer early and it was rejected.”

But the Braves found no interest in Lowe and revised their thinking.

Vazquez, meanwhile, was not the only pitcher who interested the Yankees. Cashman was talking to several other teams and to one free agent – John Smoltz. The former Braves’ star starter and reliever didn’t appear to make a good comeback last season with the Red Sox (2-5, 8.33) and the Cardinals (1-3, 4.26), but Yankees’ scouts liked what they saw and recommended Smoltz to Cashman.

But, the general manager said, “We never got to the point of making an offer.”

For Vazquez and another pitcher, Boone Logan, the Yankees gave the Braves $500,000 and three players, outfielder Melky Cabrera, and two minor league pitchers, Michael Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino.

A 19-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, Vizcaino was the key player in the deal for the Braves. “We had to give up a good prospect,” Cashman said. “That could come back and bite us.”

Cabrera, the Yankees’ center fielder last season, was one of four players the Twins sought from the Yankees for Santana two years ago. The others were Ian Kennedy, Jeff Marquez and Phil Hughes. Marquez was in last year’s trade for Swisher, and Kennedy was one of three players the Yankees used to get Granderson.

“After the World Series,” Cashman said, “I talked to the Tigers about Granderson, and I stayed with it.”

When a trade didn’t initially materialize, Josh Byrnes, the Diamondbacks’ general manager, stepped in and introduced the idea of involving a third team. Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ general manager, gave Cashman a list of players “they were willing to move and a secondary list they might be forced to listen because of circumstances.”

Cashman didn’t say what the circumstances were, but the Tigers were looking to slash their $139 million payroll. Granderson is guaranteed $25.75 million for the next three years.

“They were open to moving him because they would get some salary relief,” Cashman said.

In the economic world of Major League Baseball, Granderson’s departure works for the Tigers but his presence on the payroll works for the Yankees. The average annual value of his contract, $8.58 million, doesn’t approach the $13 million a year Damon and Matsui earned the past four years.

“He fit the criteria we were looking for, which was lower payroll, he was athletic and he was under contract,” Cashman said.Curtis Granderson 225

Given how Granderson had performed for the Tigers for four years, though he slipped offensively last season, it seemed likely that if he were available, other teams would be interested.

“You never know for sure,” Cashman said, speaking of possible competition. “You have to take the approach that you don’t want to be in a situation where if a deal seems reasonable, how would you feel if he went to another team and your deal went south? If that’s the player you want, you go after him. New York can change people, but he’s a terrific guy. He did a heckuva job for Detroit.”

For a player who should be moving into the prime of his career, the Yankees didn’t give up much – Kennedy, whose value has dropped steeply since his earlier prospect days; Phil Coke, a relief pitcher, who can be easily replaced, and Austin Jackson, an outfield prospect, who at 22 is 6 years younger than Granderson but far from being the established major leaguer that Granderson is.

Most teams that win the World Series like to make some changes for the following season to prevent complacency from setting in. With his off-season moves, Cashman has followed that philosophy: Damon, Matsui, Cabrera out; Granderson, Johnson, Vazquez in.

Speaking about the possibility of Damon and Matsui remaining, Cashman said, “We were open to it if it worked out. We had to find out if they fit in the budget number.”

To hear a Yankees executive talk about a budget is jarring. The Yankees and budget have never seemed to fit in the same sentence. But the Yankees are intent on getting their payroll under $200 million.

“I felt we needed to do some things with our starting pitching,” Cashman said. “That was a priority. We took care of that with Pettitte and Vazquez. But we had to be careful about how we proceeded because of our budget.”

Damon and Matsui had become fan favorites in New York, but Cashman wasn’t influenced by their status.

“I don’t think the Yankees should be expected to pay what someone wants just because we’re the Yankees,” Cashman said. “We expressed our interest and how much we’d go.

We’d love to have Johnny Damon back but obviously their wants couldn’t match what we needed to do.”

Cashman said he talked to Scott Boras, Damon’s agent, who he said told him “we won’t take a penny less than $13 million a year for two years.” “I have a guy,” Cashman said he responded, referring to Johnson, “who we could have for half that for one year.”

Cashman also talked to Arn Tellem, Matsui’s agent, but “he moved quicker than we were willing to move. They had an offer on the table that they needed an answer to immediately. I talked to Arn Tellem Friday night, and he called Sunday and said we need to make a decision now. I said we’re not prepared to. He took the bird in the hand and was probably smart to do so.”

Matsui signed a one-year contract with the Angels for $6 million. No one has signed Damon for two years and $26 million. “He’s still a free agent,” Cashman said, “and we move forward.”

Cashman indeed has moved very well the past month.

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