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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Cashman having to defend previous lack of spending is kind of weird

Yankees GM Brian Cashman speaking at a news

Yankees GM Brian Cashman speaking at a news conference after the 2019 season. Credit: Howard Simmons

As we wait for the Bronx unveiling of Gerrit Cole in the days ahead and ponder what the Mets will do with their newfound Yo Money, here are some leftovers from last week’s winter meetings, otherwise known as Boras-palooza . . .

Although Brian Cashman fired up the Death Star in giving Cole that nine-year, $324 million contract, the Yankees’ general manager wasn’t buying the rekindled “Evil Empire” conversation. In Cashman’s view, the Yankees always have “the hammer” ready when it’s necessary to flex their financial might, and he continues to bristle at any suggestion that the Yankees are being tight with money when they pass on any top-dollar free agent, as they did while sitting out the Manny Machado-Bryce Harper sweepstakes last winter.

“I always thought that was a false narrative,” Cashman said. “We have been a very aggressive franchise forever, it seems, under the Steinbrenner family. We’ve been at the highest-level payrolls on a year-in, year-out basis and one of the best teams year-in, year out, competing for a championship, so all those boxes get checked. We’ve been acting Yankee-like despite people speaking to the contrary.”

The Yankees made no secret of their goal to get below the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for the 2018 season in an effort to reset their rate after paying a total of $341 million over 15 straight years. But that opened up Cashman & Co. to criticism when the Red Sox spent $238 million that season, beat them in the ALDS and won the World Series.

A decade-long title drought also put the Yankees on the defensive, and they still have that mountain to climb. But with a projected 2020 payroll of $245 million, the Yankees have effectively silenced any critics of their spending habits.

“A lot of things in this game have been set up to prevent the Yankees from being what they were under George Steinbrenner,” Cashman said. “George Steinbrenner couldn’t be George Steinbrenner in this existence as he did in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. So I think Hal Steinbrenner, along with his brothers and sisters, are operating as tremendous owners in this new world order, navigating it to the best of their abilities. I think they’re doing extremely well. They’re putting a team together that contends for a championship on a year-in, year-out basis, at super-deluxe salary levels. That can’t be ignored. Those are facts that are real.”

Mets have improved

At one point during the meetings, I joked with Brodie Van Wagenen about going the “under-promise, over-deliver” route when talking about his winter plan for the Mets, and he smiled, adding that it isn’t really his style. But through the first six weeks of the offseason -- with at least another six to go -- he could say he was able to cross a few items off his shopping list, albeit in modest fashion.

The Mets aren’t in the Cole aisle yet -- not before the Steve Cohen Era begins -- but they did manage to add desperately needed rotation depth with the signings of Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, two reclamation projects who could yield big returns. They also got their glove-first centerfielder in Jake Marisnick and secured an under-the-radar bullpen piece in Brad Brach.

These are not splashy moves, obviously. But in no way should the Mets now feel compelled to move one of their non-Jacob deGrom starters, at least not before they see where they stand at the trade deadline.

As for other potential deals, we could see Van Wagenen getting restless in late December/early January, and if the Mets really do feel flush with that cash back from the Cespedes grievance, they could use another bullpen arm or two.

Manfred upbeat about Cohen

Frankly, it was shocking to hear commissioner Rob Manfred so quickly endorse Cohen’s path to ownership of the Mets, even if he dodged the question about when the Wilpons first offered a larger stake to the billionaire hedge-fund manager. Manfred usually is more tight-lipped on ownership issues, especially when it comes to a new person taking control, and MLB historically has treaded lightly with the Wilpons. No longer.

“Steve Cohen and Fred Wilpon have known each other for a long time,” Manfred said. “Steve has been limited [owner] in the club for a long time. I do not expect there will be any governance issues associated with the plan that they have in place for the transition of the Mets.”

So that looks like all-systems-go from the commissioner, and I’d expect Cohen’s influence to be felt much sooner rather than later regardless of the five-year timeline announced for both Fred and Jeff Wilpon’s stewardship of the Mets.

Boras looking like a winner

Ironically, it was Scott Boras who helped MLB get the type of eventful winter meetings they’ve been dying for, while making himself even richer in the process. Boras was partly responsible for some of the recent stagnant offseasons, thanks to his strategy of dragging out negotiations into February, as he did with Harper last winter. But he’d argue that was more to do with frugality on the part of the teams, or even worse, a concerted effort to keep salaries in check (both sides are hesitant to use the radioactive word “collusion’’).

This December, however, Boras was like Santa Claus in reverse. It seemed as if all he had to do was show up in San Diego with a giant sack and have teams throw money into it. Boras had the top three free agents this offseason -- Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon -- and all signed during the winter meetings for a total of $814 million. Throw in Mike Moustakas’ four-year, $64 million deal, and with Hyun-Jin Ryu, Nicholas Castellanos and Dallas Keuchel still on the board, Boras is closing fast on $1 billion.

It’s all good

Not to suggest the two sides don’t have plenty to talk about for the next CBA, including a revamped salary structure, but I think we can put to rest any talk of a looming work stoppage before then. Through Saturday -- the first six weeks of free agency -- MLB teams had spent $1.38 billion, at a yearly average of $15.7 million. Last year, the final tally was $1.86 billion, with an $8 million average (according to Spotrac.com). Obviously, these figures are top-heavy, but union chief Tony Clark can’t use a frozen free-agent market as a rallying cry this year. Business is booming.

MLB: Please believe us about the ball

I get why MLB keeps commissioning studies to analyze the baseball in an attempt to quiet juiced-ball conspiracy theorists. But no matter how many scientists they trot out, as they did again with Wednesday’s presentation at the winter meetings, the only way people will stop being suspicious is if the ball performs the way they think it should -- and that includes pitchers and hitters as well as fans.

Also, MLB keeps coming back to the same conclusion: Because the balls are hand-made using natural materials, the performance will vary from year to year and even from one individual ball to the next. The five-scientist panel did conclude that player behavior (launch angle) and smaller seam height (by 0.001 inches) likely contributed to the uptick in home runs the past two seasons, but it did not list any other factors that directly reduced the drag on the ball’s flight.

As for those natural materials, I was actually involved in a discussion with an MLB official about how changes in the grasses the cows eat, or how an increase in mosquito bites on said cow, could potentially affect the rawhide covers those cows eventually contribute. That’s really boiling down the baseball’s performance to the molecular level, but it gives you an idea of how closely these things are being scrutinized.

Major problem with minors

It’s difficult to pick a side in this escalating war between MLB and the minor leagues (MiLB). On one hand, we can understand why MLB would want to cut back the number of farm teams, because there seems to be way too many. And if clubs believe they don’t need to invest that much for an excessive number of minor-league players and facilities, it would appear to make sense, from both a practical and business standpoint.

On the other hand, we also see the importance of cultivating the next generation of baseball fans at these lower levels and believe the sport’s outreach would be seriously wounded by shuttering as many as 42 minor-league teams, as reports have detailed. Manfred lashed out at MiLB this past week for taking their negotiating gripes public, which prompted a response Friday that refuted his claims on a point-by-point basis. By late Friday night, Manfred used the nuclear option, threatening to sever relations with the minors entirely and have MLB create its own farm system.

The current agreement expires after the 2020 season, and with such animosity from both sides, big changes seem inevitable. While it’s tough to predict a winner here, the loser could be the sport itself.

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