NEW YORK -- High above the Yankee Stadium playing field, Brian Cashman was watching the big-screen TV mounted in his office, watching a kid he did not trade (David Phelps) try to outpitch a veteran he did not trade for (Ryan Dempster).
Cashman was sitting behind his desk, the TV on the wall to his left, a busy draft board on the wall straight ahead, the busier Bronx streets below the windows to his right, when he was asked if the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers represented the team to beat in the American League.
"Oh, Texas," the general manager said without blinking. "They're the two-time defending champs who just fell short in the World Series. They know how to turn it on, and until somebody takes them out in our league they're the team to beat and the team everyone else is gunning for."
The same team the Yankees would pound, 8-2, with young Phelps getting the victory and the not-so-young Dempster getting a beating he won't soon forget. Sure Cashman was a bit worried when the Rangers traded for the Cubs' right-hander. "Texas is better with him," he said, "and Dempster's a heck of a pitcher."
A heck of a pitcher the Yanks felt they didn't need.
"First, I had to match up with the Cubs," Cashman said. "And then I had to go see if Hal [Steinbrenner] would give the money, which I don't think he would have."
Last fall, Hal Steinbrenner gave his GM $9 million over three years to continue making the calls he first started making in February of 1998, when a 30-year-old Cashman replaced Bob Watson and immediately confessed he was an administrator who didn't count personnel evaluation among his strengths.
Somehow George Steinbrenner didn't fire him on the spot, and somehow Cashman has bridged the transition to Hal. After surviving an eight-year championship drought, two historic titles in Boston, and a playoff-free season in 2008, Cashman sees a chance to enhance his front office legacy.
"I want to get in first, that's the most important thing before talking about our chances to win it all," Cashman said. "But yes, I do think we're a championship-caliber team. If we're firing on all cylinders, I think we're capable of a lot.
"We have to get our injured guys back, and we have to play up to our abilities. But our players have a determination about them that I've seen, that they are really all in, and that's the reason we're sitting where we are despite the injuries. Collectively we have a lot of guys that really know how to smell that win column. I think this team definitely has a chance to be the last team standing."
Monday night, Phelps and Dempster embodied the philosophy Cashman embraced when he lobbied George Steinbrenner for more control following the 2005 season. Develop talent. Show patience. Don't overreact at the trade deadline, and don't give up prospects and money today when you can keep the prospects and pay the money tomorrow.
Nick Swisher hit a grand slam off Dempster, the same Nick Swisher acquired from the Chicago White Sox for a package that included Jeff Marquez, the same Jeff Marquez expected to go to Minnesota the year before in a deal for Johan Santana. Cashman didn't want to do the Santana trade, which would've included Phil Hughes and Melky Cabrera, when he knew he could keep his young talent and throw big free-agent money at CC Sabathia the following year.
But the Yanks missed the postseason in 2008 by waiting, missed the postseason for the first time since the '94 tournament was canceled, and Cashman was skewered for it. The GM didn't just stand by his man, rookie manager Joe Girardi, he stood by himself.
A defiant Cashman announced he would return and rewrite the story that held him responsible for the Yanks' demise. "We missed the playoffs that year because of injuries," Cashman said Monday night, "and I could see what was happening. If I left here someone else is going to come in and win and they're going to say it's because of this freakin' guy, and not because of the work we've done here. So I stayed."
He won his fourth ring as GM in 2009, spending zillions on Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, going two for three on those recruits without surrendering a single prospect. Cashman has had his share of epic fails over the years, too, and who knows if Michael Pineda will end up joining that list.
But his patchwork moves -- Eric Chavez, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Lowe, etc. -- were all over the field Monday night. Chavez slammed another homer, Ichiro dropped down a sacrifice bunt and later tripled, and Lowe --- one of the heartbreakers from 2004 -- pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball in his Yankees debut.
The home team moved 11½ games ahead of Lowe's former employers, the fourth-place Red Sox, who arrive in the Bronx in a few days. Last time Boston was in town, manager Bobby Valentine told ESPNNewYork.com the following of the Yanks' postseason chances:
"Maybe they won't get in it. Who knows? Crazy things happen in this game."
Cashman read the quote. "I'm surprised it didn't get more coverage," he said before flicking a playful jab at Valentine. "I think maybe after a while, people just don't pay attention to certain things."
But Cashman admitted Valentine had something of a valid point. "We haven't won anything yet," he said.
The Yankees GM said he has studied Tom Coughlin's Giants, Bill Belichick's Patriots, and Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils to better understand why some teams consistently separate themselves from their opponents. Though Cashman likens his team's detail-oriented approach to Coughlin's, he's thrilled that Tim Tebow and Rex Ryan share the same neighborhood.
"Now that the Olympics are over," Cashman said, "the Jets will be good for us. We appreciate the media coverage, but sometimes you don't want the spotlight on you. Sometimes you want to work through your problems quietly."
Nothing is ever too quiet in the Bronx for long, and Cashman knows it. If he no longer fears for his job, he does fear the pain and emptiness of postseason failure.
That doesn't mean he expects his 2012 team to experience it.