Cashman was right to pass on Cliff Lee

NEW YORK -- Brian Cashman could have gone for it on Cliff Lee, the same way he could have gone for it on Johan Santana. Cashman could have made a bad deal and hid behind the mission statement of his employer, the New York Yankees, who subscribe to this simple article of postseason faith:

You either win it all, or acknowledge the season as an unmitigated bust.

Cashman had a July deal with Seattle for Lee, until the Mariners decided a Yankees prospect in the trade, David Adams, had an ankle a little too sprained for their liking. To the package already including Jesus Montero, a hitter some Yankees officials liken to a young Manny Ramirez, Seattle asked Cashman to add either shortstop Eduardo Nunez or pitcher Ivan Nova.

Suddenly the Mariners wanted more than Cleveland received when it sent Lee to Philadelphia, and more than Philly received when it sent Lee to Seattle.

"Now we're being asked to give a future middle-of-the-lineup bat [Montero]," Cashman said, "and either a future starting shortstop [Nunez] or a potential high-end starter [Nova], who is 6-foot-4 and throws 95 miles per hour with a nasty breaking ball.

"Cliff Lee is a great pitcher, but that would've been probably the most expensive deal I've ever done. To rent a pitcher for three months, it didn't make much sense. I believe in the players we retained and they'll be a positive force for us as we move forward."

Of course, those players Cashman retained won't be helping the Yankees beat Lee's Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series. And after watching Lee embarrass the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5, a year after Lee embarrassed the Yanks in Game 1, Cashman is willing to concede the obvious.

"I'm sure our players are wishing we had him," the GM said. "But I constantly have to wrestle the short term with the long term."

Sure, this is a short-term market that deals in long-term consequences. But Cashman did the right thing here, and he clearly has earned the benefit of the doubt.

Everyone pushed him to land Santana before the 2008 season. In the end, the Minnesota Twins would've accepted a package of Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez and Mitch Hilligoss for Santana, who then would've demanded the same $137.5 million from the Yanks that he received from the Mets.

A number of Yankees officials were in favor of doing the trade. "But I didn't think we should put all our eggs in that one basket," Cashman said. "I didn't think we were prepared to make a four-for-one deal. We didn't have the farm system then to support injuries and to replace the guys who would've been leaving. We would've been robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Or robbing Hal to pay Johan. Cashman made his recommendation to Hal Steinbrenner that the Yankees should tell the Twins thanks, but no thanks, and Hal agreed.

"And then I got skewered," Cashman said.

The GM was widely ripped in 2008 as the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in forever, this while Santana was going 16-7 with the Mets.

"A great pitcher wound up across the street, and I had to live with his success," Cashman said. "But there's no room for regrets. You only have a chance to make that decision once, and it was definitely a decision that set us up for where we are today."

Today. As defending World Series champions in the ALCS. As a Final Four team far better off for not making Santana part of its starting five.

Cashman gambled that he would be able to sign CC Sabathia last offseason, even though Sabathia was thought to be against moving to New York. The GM traveled to CC's California home. He sold the pitcher on the market, told him he could become the grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade, and closed the deal with a $161 million bid.

So Cashman landed the left-handed ace he preferred over Santana, and didn't give up a single prospect in the transaction. One piece of the proposed Santana package, Hughes, developed into an 18-game winner who shut down the Twins in the division series. Another pitching piece, Marquez, was sent to the White Sox for Nick Swisher, who has been a Scott Brosius-like find.

Swisher vindicates Cashman on an entirely different level, too. When the GM convinced the ruling Steinbrenners to grant him more control over baseball operations, he made quantitative analysis a part of the outdated Yankees playbook. Cashman hired Michael Fishman as his lead forensic scientist.

Fishman is the one who studied Swisher's disappointing 2008 in Chicago and concluded that the right fielder was largely a victim of bum luck. Fishman is the one who advised Cashman that Swisher would be a great hire.

"I've made a lot of good decisions," Cashman said, "and unfortunately I've made some bad ones. If you have a strong process you go through, then it helps you gravitate toward the correct decision. But after you make that decision in real time you have to live with it."

Cashman ended up with Sabathia, Hughes and Swisher after passing on Santana, who keeps booking appointments with a surgeon's blade. For Cashman, that doesn't mean it was any easier saying no to the Twins than it was saying no to the Mariners when they pushed hard on Cliff Lee.

"It's not what the Yankees have typically done," Cashman said, "standing down and living to fight another day."

Sometimes you have to stand down to rise up. Lee will try to beat the Yankees before he joins them in a couple of months, but win, lose or draw in October, Cashman did the right thing in July.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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