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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Brian Cashman, Aaron Boone push back on Yankees' 'puppet' narrative

Yankees manager Aaron Boone, left, talks with general

Yankees manager Aaron Boone, left, talks with general manager Brian Cashman, right, during batting practice before a game against the Blue Jays in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 7. Credit: AP/Adrian Kraus

Before Brian Cashman returns to work this offseason getting the Yankees up to speed with the Rays -- "a better franchise right now," he called them Wednesday -- the general manager made sure to snip any perceived strings attached to manager Aaron Boone.

Cashman, along with Boone, strongly pushed back on the "puppet" narrative that surfaced with a vengeance last week after the questionable decision-making for Game 2 of the Division Series eventually led to their ouster by Tampa Bay. Choosing to use rookie Deivi Garcia as an opener, followed by a disgruntled J.A. Happ as the bulk pitcher, was a failed plan that cast a pall over the Yankees’ entire postseason, and will haunt the organization throughout the winter.

We already knew it was a collaborative effort -- a term that’s liberally used from the front office down to the manager’s chair by virtually every club these days. But Cashman went the extra mile Wednesday to dispel the notion that Boone merely followed a doomed script in the Game 2 loss, which in that case, really didn’t do his manager any favors, either.

"I know there's a narrative about the manager being a puppet -- none of that's true," Cashman said. "I’ve never ordered a manager to do anything specifically. And Aaron would be able to testify to that as well. Joe Girardi, Joe Torre, they've never been directed at any time by me or our front office to do something that they didn't want to do --- simple as that. People want to believe whatever they want to believe so. I just know we have a good strong healthy sound process and one that we're proud of."

Cashman went on to mention the lineup card and in-game moves as belonging to the manager. Of course, if that manager disagrees too often, or keeps making the wrong choices, then it’s time for a new one. I get the sense the pushback from Boone is very minimal, if at all, having just completed his third season since leaving the broadcast booth for this gig. Someone like Girardi, well, there’s a reason he’s managing in Philly.

Using Game 2 as an example, Cashman’s staff provided all the data to support the Garcia-Happ tandem, rather than going with a traditional starter, and then it became Boone’s job to execute the plan, from briefing Happ on his role to the tight leash on Garcia. Boone maintained Wednesday that the process involved his informed decisions, and also hinged on his reading of Happ.

"The conversations I had personally with J.A. were forthright and honest and, to some degree, a little bit difficult," Boone said. "And certainly informative in explaining exactly where I was coming from, and ultimately making the decision that I did."

To me, harping on who’s calling the shots, be it the front office or manager, is an antiquated debate in 2020. That’s been over for a decade. There is a reason teams like the Yankees employ a small battalion of data analysts and it’s not to play hunches. The key is to make the chain of command run seamlessly, with the manager operating as the point of the spear down in the clubhouse/dugout.

Take the Rays, for instance. In any conversation I’ve had with their execs, or manager Kevin Cash, it’s always about being part of the winning system they’ve devised, and incorporating the gathered intelligence to their play on the field. We’ve seen it work to near-perfection this October, from the platoons to bullpen deployment to defensive positioning. And during the Division Series, it certainly looked as if the Rays got inside the Yankees’ heads leading up to Game 2.

"There was a lot of information provided over how to navigate this unique team," Cashman said of the Rays, "because you don't see a team like this, with the capabilities and flexibility they have in this particular roster. Ultimately, all we were doing was matchup baseball."

Cashman believed they gave Happ a greater percentage chance at success by forcing the Rays to set their lineup for Garcia. The GM also cited Happ’s experience coming out of the bullpen for the playoffs (10 of his 14 previous appearances were in relief).

Perhaps most telling was Cashman feeling like the Yankees were shorthanded for this Division Series matchup, when in actuality the roster was more complete than it had been all season. That spoke more to some inherent flaws that were the GM’s domain, not Boone’s.

"If I obviously had somehow either maintained the health of current starters that were down or acquired other starters that I can plug-and-play in there, then those type of decisions don't have to be made," Cashman said. "But because of the way the roster was configured -- which is my responsibility, not his -- he was forced to try to come up with different game plans and be open-minded to how to best navigate it. And it didn't work out."

Regardless of who was pulling the strings.

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