PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Brian Cashman can’t help but admire the Mets’ starting rotation. Any general manager would gladly swap their own for the Flushing Five, an elite group that possesses the Holy Trinity of pitching qualities: talent, youth and affordability.
But what it took for the Mets put this collection of arms together? Not everyone is signing on for that, and especially the GM of the Yankees, a team whose patience is measured in minutes rather than decades.
“I know they’re happy to be where they’re sitting right now, no doubt about it,” Cashman said before Wednesday’s game at Tradition Field. “They walked through fire to get there.”
That’s one way to put it. The Mets needed two GMs, three drafts over a half-dozen years and two salary-dump, rebuilding-mode trades to piece together the rotation they’ll send out once Zack Wheeler returns from Tommy John surgery in July.
The Mets also went nine years between playoff appearances, and spaced two World Series trips — both losses — another 15 years apart. In the midst of all that despair, the Omar Minaya regime handed off to Sandy Alderson’s reconstruction crew, which completed the job.
It was Minaya who drafted Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, while Alderson traded for Noah Syndergaard and Wheeler. Winning was secondary during that period, and we don’t mean to breathing, as George Steinbrenner once eloquently stated. Cashman still operates according to the Steinbrenner legacy — now presided over by his more moderate son, Hal — and that doesn’t permit any five-year plans.
“There’s just different ways to climb the mountain,” Cashman said. “Sometimes there’s a longer winding road. But that road I’m not allowed to take.”
Maybe Cashman, sitting on the dugout bench, about an hour before Jacob deGrom’s spring-training debut against the Yankees, was feeling a little rotation-envy. It was hard not to. Over the past few years, Cashman has been trying to do a similar thing with his own pitching staff, maneuvering to make younger upgrades as the longtime anchor, CC Sabathia, inches toward the door.
It’s just difficult to do on the fly without sacrificing in other areas. The Yankees had to pay $175 million for Masahiro Tanaka, then made trades to get Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda. Only Luis Severino and Ivan Nova — the latter currently penciled in for the bullpen — are homegrown.
The 2016 upside is promising. But with this group’s medical history, there’s also the potential for disaster. To Cashman, however, it’s the best he could do, describing himself as a “little cog in this machine.” The GM has given the impression that Hal wasn’t interested in opening the checkbook for the big-money arms like David Price and Zack Greinke, and the team’s blueprint going forward is to hang on to the top organizational talent, as the Mets have done.
“I’m happy with the current route we’re taking,” Cashman said. “And if I can do more to speed it up, I would have, but the other teams that told me ‘No’ didn’t comply with my wishes. We need to continue to assemble young, controllable, high-ceiling assets. That’s always been the goal.”
Right now, the Mets, on paper, are winning that arms race against the Yankees. There’s many moving parts when it comes to elite pitchers, and plenty can go wrong. But when Cashman looks at Alderson’s handiwork from across town, he can’t help but marvel at the finished product. From a GM’s perspective, viewing what the Mets have done is like an architect sizing up the pyramids.
“Obviously they’ve selected the right guys, kept the right guys, developed the right guys, and they now have a collection of assets that they should be and are very proud of,” Cashman said. “And everybody aspires to that. It’s just not easy to get it.”
The Yankees did deploy their own first-rounder Wednesday in James Kaprielian, the 16th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Just 22, Kaprielian is only a year removed from UCLA, but possesses a mid-90s fastball and a nasty arsenal of breaking pitches. Naturally, Cashman is fantasizing about his own Harvey or deGrom. And that’s the dream for Kaprielian, who worked out with Harvey over the winter and shares an agent in Scott Boras.
“I look up to those guys,” Kaprielian said.
Cashman, for now, can only envy them.