NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Yankees, despite having an obvious need at second base, didn’t pursue Ben Zobrist.
“We thought about it,” Brian Cashman said Tuesday night. “But with our stated goal, and his age, and the four years, that would fly against what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Imagine that. Zobrist was actually too old and too expensive for the Yankees. So instead, Cashman became the deciding factor in the fight between the two clubs that badly wanted the super-utility player, the Mets and Cubs.
We’re not saying Cashman set out to purposely scuttle the offseason plans of his crosstown rival. That’s ridiculous to suggest. The Yankees, after losing the wild-card playoff, have plenty of their own issues to worry about. But in rekindling the Starlin Castro negotiations with the Cubs, just as the Mets were closing in on Zobrist, Cashman enabled his North Side counterpart, Theo Epstein, to exact a measure of revenge on the team that swept him from the NLCS in October.
There’s no denying when the Mets woke up Tuesday morning, they were very optimistic Zobrist soon would be on board. The recruiting visit, the sales pitch, the willingness to go to four years. Money wasn’t an issue. The Zobrist deal was feeling like a slam dunk for the NL champs, and they could sense it.
“This is a team that if you want to be on a winner,” Terry Collins said later in the day, “then you should be knocking on our door.”
Unfortunately for the Mets, Cashman already had been busy that same morning, ringing the Cubs on Castro. The Yankees’ GM canceled a number of his early media appointments as the negotiations intensified, until Epstein finally told him any Castro trade would have to be contingent on another move — the Cubs signing Zobrist, which Epstein eventually did to a four-year, $56-million contract.
That’s how the Mets’ nightmare became real. The Cubs were attractive to Zobrist in their own right: a 97-win team on the rise, with his former Rays manager in the dugout. But Epstein needed to shed a middle infielder to make room, and who better than Castro, who is due a guaranteed $38 million through 2019?
Enter Cashman. He had no desire to begin spring training with Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder duking it out for second base, so Castro was an obvious match. Cashman said he had been in contact about Castro since the July 31 trade deadline, and when he flourished late last season at second base, that only confirmed what the Yankees already believed he could do if they used him there.
The Yankees needed an upgrade at the position, and why go halfway? As much as Cashman previously talked up his in-house options, Joe Girardi was more transparent when asked Tuesday about the position before the Castro swap had been completed. With shifts putting more strain on infielders, they have to be more athletic, with better arms. That’s a tough balance to find with someone who also could do damage at the plate.
“You could be greedy,” Girardi said. “You look for outstanding defense and offensive production. That’s the greedy part of it.”
Castro, in Cashman’s mind, “checks all the boxes.” He’s versatile enough to play second base, third and short while also possessing the pop to be a serious threat from the right side. That provides great roster flexibility for Girardi, and not all that different from Zobrist, who is a more accomplished hitter and also can play the outfield.
Another plus: Castro is only 25, so he becomes part of the Yankees’ continuing youth moment. Last month, at the GM meetings, Cashman traded for Aaron Hicks, a 26-year-old, switch-hitting outfielder. The Yankees already are counting on Luis Severino, 21, for the front end of the rotation and Greg Bird, 23, soon will inherit first base from Mark Teixeira.
Cashman said getting younger has “always been a priority — it’s just hard to do.” But in explaining the Yankees’ efforts, he made a reference to the Mets, the rival he just burned by doing so.
“You’ve got a team across the street that went through a lot to get to where they are now,” Cashman said. “So it can be done. It just hasn’t been and isn’t part of our DNA to accept that full-blown commitment to rebuild.”
The Yankees just happened to do it Tuesday at the Mets’ expense.