Commentary

Soriano? No sweat. Starters? Well ...

Cashman endorses closer but leaves door open to deal for starting pitchers

Updated: June 20, 2012, 2:45 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

The most interesting news Yankees general manager Brian Cashman made Tuesday during a radio appearance just a few hours before the Bombers failed to win their 11th straight game wasn't his admission that he's already thinking about his trade-deadline shopping list. That's normal, even if Cashman currently runs the hottest team in baseball.

The most noteworthy thing Cashman said Tuesday had to do with what he wasn't looking to deal for.

Brian Cashman
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRemember when Brian Cashman admitted to being against the Rafael Soriano signing?

Because in a roundabout way, Cashman's unwillingness to profess faith in his starting rotation suggested he still worries this three-week hot streak the Yanks have been on is at least a bit illusory. And he also uttered what might've been the nicest -- and costliest -- compliment he's ever paid to reliever Rafael Soriano since Soriano became a Yankee over his objections. And knowing Soriano's barracuda agent, Scott Boras, it was easy to imagine the super-computer Boras uses to cobble together his infamous negotiating packets about his clients booting up and then downloading this sound bite seconds after it came out of Cashman's mouth:

"Our bullpen had some hits, certainly we lost Mariano Rivera, but it's given a chance for other people to step up and show what they can do, and they've done that so far," Cashman said on Sirius/XM's MLB Network Radio.

"[So] I am not sure there's anything for that to be addressed."

But the Yanks' starting pitching, the strength of their June tear? That's different.

"Is that a strength? Will it need to be reinforced? I'm not willing to make that call yet," Cashman said even before Hiroki Kuroda fell to 6-7 with a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

Cashman's list of priorities is an extraordinary juxtaposition, if you think about it. And it's certainly not the answer you might expect from the general manager of a team that lost Rivera to an ACL injury and Joba Chamberlain until August (if not longer) with a broken ankle, and played for weeks without All-Star setup man David Robertson because of an oblique strain.

But the fact is Cashman still feels more unsure about the Yanks' starting rotation than their bullpen or continued lack of reliable hitting with runners in scoring position. And that was true even before their streak of fattening up on the Braves in interleague play hit a little speed bump Tuesday with their first loss in five games this season against Atlanta.

Kuroda wasn't bad. The Yanks' lack of clutch hitting was the worst thing that stuck in their craw after the game.

And still ... the fact that he'd finger the starting pitching as perhaps the Yanks' greatest need was an interesting acknowledgement, for several reasons.

One is the timing. The Yanks' starting rotation became the story of their hot streak by posting a 1.97 ERA and lifting the team to a 14-2 record this month before Tuesday's loss. And so, while it's indeed shrewd for Cashman to understand -- and worry -- that such a stellar pace can't possibly last, it isn't exactly a vote of confidence to publicly admit he'd like to add more depth just in case, well, what? Forty-year-old Andy Pettitte crashes and burns again by the end of the year after taking a season off? Or Phil Hughes and Kuroda revert to struggling? Or workhorse CC Sabathia finally starts showing some wear? All of the above?

More than that, it says something interesting about Soriano, who has thrived as the Yanks' new closer. Because it's still hard to forget the way Cashman stood up at Soriano's introductory news conference last season and took the highly unusual step of volunteering that he didn't recommend signing the right-handed reliever. Cashman explained that he was overruled by his bosses, owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine. It was also Levine who negotiated most of the three-year, $35 million contract the Yanks lavished on Soriano and -- even more to the point -- the opt-out clause they may come to regret.

To be fair, remember that Cashman stressed at the time that he had no quarrel with Soriano's ability. The man had just saved 45 games for the Rays, and even Cashman admitted, "We're a better team with him." What Cashman objected to was the idea of paying Soriano "closer" money when he was penciled in as the Yankees' eighth-inning guy.

Now, the good news/bad news about how well Soriano has filled in as the irreplaceable Rivera's replacement: Like the opt-out clause Sabathia leveraged against the Yanks this past offseason, his is another out that's really going to cost the Yankees.

Cashman's bosses were right. The insurance Soriano provided behind Rivera now looks incalculably important. But now it's going to cost the Yanks even more of a commitment to Soriano than Cashman objected to when the Yanks signed Soriano in the first place.

Soriano, who didn't pitch and wasn't available for comment Tuesday night, has converted 13 saves in 14 opportunities since Rivera went out.

The Yanks actively chose him over Robertson as their closer even when Robertson was healthy.

And nobody knows how well Rivera will perform next season, if and when he does come back.

Boras has made teams pay through the nose when he has had a lot less to work with than that.

But the bright side is the same one it always is with the Yankees: It's only money.

"You do know you're up against it when you play them," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said with a laugh before Tuesday's game. "It is amazing that their bullpen has been able to survive. But they not only have a lot of depth. The thing that's really different about them is [their] veteran depth."

When Cashman goes out shopping next week or next month, he doesn't know who he wants. Not yet. He just knows he doesn't quite trust the Yanks' starting rotation -- and that this hot streak has been just as much about Soriano, the reliever he didn't want and now wouldn't want to live without.

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