Commentary

Brian Cashman's riskiest move yet

If Jesus Montero is as good as advertised, then Michael Pineda better be, too

Updated: January 23, 2012, 9:40 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Jesus MonteroJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe good times were short and sweet for the baby Jesus in New York.

During the course of his 14 seasons as the general manager of the New York Yankees, Brian Cashman has traded away Alfonso Soriano, a seven-time All-Star who once hit 46 home runs in a season; Kenny Lofton, a multiple Gold Glove-winning center fielder; David Justice, a former NL Rookie of the Year who batted over .300 in four of his 12 full big league seasons; Ian Kennedy, a 21-game winner last year; and Randy Johnson, who is headed to the Hall of Fame. So it was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser to hear Cashman say of Jesus Montero, "He may well be the best player I've ever traded."

Montero, of course, is no longer a Yankee, having been shipped off 10 days ago to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Michael Pineda, a 6-foot-7, 23-year-old starting pitcher who, like Montero, carries a world of promise in his right arm.

On paper, it looks like the proverbial trade that helps both clubs, a need-for-need, youth-for-youth, potential-for-potential swap that makes sense on both sides of the country.

[+] EnlargePineda
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesMichael Pineda's got great stuff. But so does A.J. Burnett.

But what if it doesn't?

What if Montero turns out to be everything the Yankees believed him to be? What if he continues to hit in the next 1,000 games of his big league career the way he hit in his first 18?

And more ominously, what if Michael Pineda continues to pitch the way he did over the second half of 2011, his rookie season, rather than the way he did in the first half?

What if it turns out the Yankees have traded Yogi Berra for, say, another Javier Vazquez? Or worse, another A.J. Burnett?

The late George Steinbrenner used to have an off-the-rack expression he would drop on his GMs at a time like this: "You'd better be right, kid."

Certainly, the pressure level around Yankee Stadium has dropped since The Boss shuffled off this mortal coil nearly two years ago, but he left behind a legion of Yankees fans who feel the same way. At times, maybe even Cashman allows such thoughts to creep into his head. He would have to be inhuman not to.

Because if Montero is truly the best player Brian Cashman has ever traded away, then this trade is the biggest risk he has ever taken as Yankees GM.

Compared to this one, the Austin Jackson-for-Curtis Granderson three-way deal of a couple of years ago was just a warm-up act, and there were plenty of fans calling for Cashman's scalp late in 2010 when Granderson was struggling at .240 while Jackson was among the league leaders in batting.

That died down with Granderson's MVP-caliber 2012 and Jackson's return to earth, but can you imagine the reaction if Montero gets off to a hot start in Seattle while Pineda struggles in the Bronx?

"This was a tough deal, a very tough deal," Cashman said on a conference call with reporters Monday evening after the trade was finally completed, having been delayed by visa problems that kept Montero in Venezuela and then a snowstorm in Seattle that caused one of his flights to be turned around.

"It's not easy to make these decisions," Cashman added. "Obviously, I've been doing this for quite some time and I believe [Montero's] that good. I believe he's a middle-of-the-lineup-type bat and very gifted. He's a good kid and he's going to have a heck of a career, he really is."

For the record, Cashman has also traded away Kyle Farnsworth, Brian Bruney, Wilson Betemit, Eric Fryer and dozens of other players whom Yankees fans would have volunteered to drive to the airport. He was not involved, thankfully, in the infamous Jay Buhner-for-Ken Phelps deal that cost George Costanza most of his hair. And overwhelmingly, Cashman's judgment has been good in both the trade and free-agent markets, Kei Igawa notwithstanding.

But this one has inherent risks, not only because of Montero's potential. There's also the troubling tendency of young pitchers to (choose one): get injured; suddenly lose their effectiveness, their control, their confidence; and generally never reach the levels of performance predicted of them. And there's the Yankees' role in the whole creation of the myth of Baby Jesus, the can't-miss kid they wouldn't even trade for Cliff Lee.

Now, they've traded him for Michael Pineda, an immensely talented young man who was 7-4 with a 2.64 ERA on June 17 but finished at 9-10, 3.74 after his ERA soared to 5.12 after the All-Star break.

Some things about Pineda remained impressive -- his strikeouts per nine innings ratio actually rose, from 9.0 to 9.3, over the second half; his walks remained pretty much the same; and his average fastball velocity, 94.7 mph, was higher than all but three pitchers in the AL: Alexi Ogando, Justin Verlander and David Price.

He was surely hurt by Seattle's pathetic offense -- the Mariners scored just 556 runs, the lowest in baseball -- and the 171 innings he pitched in his rookie season were by far the most he had thrown at any level of ball.

Still, he had the advantage of pitching in a cavernous ballpark but moves now to a relative bandbox. Pineda will get plenty of run support as a Yankee, but he might also find that a lot of fly balls that died harmlessly in Safeco Field land in the seats at Yankee Stadium.

Of course, the two ballparks could have the same effect on Montero, but listening to Cashman talk about him on Monday, it seemed like a remote possibility.

Cashman was asked if his decision to trade Montero was an acknowledgement by the Yankees, long suspected by outside observers, that Montero was never going to develop into an everyday major league catcher.

"It's not that at all," Cashman said. "We do think he can be an everyday catcher in the big leagues."

In that case, Cashman hasn't just traded away Yogi Berra. He's traded away Bill Dickey. If Montero can hit the way he did last September -- over .300 with impressive power to the opposite field in an admittedly minuscule sample -- plus learn to handle pitchers, Pineda will have to develop into Whitey Ford for the deal to look like a wash.

"Obviously, we both took risks here," Cashman said. "We gave up a really tremendous talent in Jesus and we hope to get a lot of talent back here in Michael. ... We both feel we did what was best for our franchises. And I'm hopeful that for both sides this works out."

It will probably take years to judge this one fairly, to know definitively if both teams got what they were looking for or if in fact one of them made a very serious error in judgment.

But if The Boss were alive, he'd care about only one side of the deal working out.

And he'd have just one thing to say to his GM: "You'd better be right, kid."

No matter what he says publicly, Brian Cashman has got to be telling himself the same thing.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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