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Dreaming on Cashman

News flash: there ain't too much happening with the Phillies right now. The team avoided arbitration with Jayson Werth on Monday, signing the outfielder to a $1.7 million contract with performance bonuses for 2008. And they evidently signed two guys named Cory Willey (lefty pitcher) and Angel Negron (first baseman), according to Baseball America by way of Beerleaguer. Otherwise, Pat Gillick seems deep into his winter nap.

Given that it's probably his last one, though, it isn't too soon to think about who the next Phillies general manager might be. Our unhappy hypothesis is that Ruben Amaro, Jr., the assistant GM who's proven much more able a company shill than he was in uniform, will complete his apprenticeship with Gillick and secure the job at the conclusion of the 2008 season, when Gillick's contract expires and he eases into full-time retirement. After all, the notoriously insular Phillies went outside the organization to bring in Gillick; no way they'll do so again, right?

Still, another big name among GMs is going to come open after this season, and the team would be remiss not to at least think about making an offer. I refer to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who's been less than subtle in implying that he's not enjoying life under Hank "Little Big Stein" Steinbrenner in New York.

Now, Cashman's complaint against Little Big Stein seems to be that he no longer has the "full authority to run the entire program" stipulated in the contract he signed with George "Big Stein" Steinbrenner after the 2005 season. So depending on exactly what that means, he might not want to run the risk of the same kind of interference at the hands of David Montgomery, Bill Giles, Dallas Green and whoever else is involved with Phillies decision-making. (Please, reporters, throw us a frickin' bone here--I still want to know who pulled the trigger on the Abreu Abomination of mid-2006.) That's one potential snag, and another is that the Phillies surely won't have the sort of budget structure in which Cashman has built an unbroken streak of Yankee playoff teams.

But what I find ironic about Cashman and how he's perceived is that the same bloated payrolls that critics once alleged made it impossible for him to get burned by his mistakes now largely obscure the best work he's done. Following the Yankees' 2003 World Series loss to Florida and shocking ALCS defeat at the hands of Boston a year later, Cashman saw an aging roster and a largely depleted farm system. Cashman made a few additions of the type Big Stein had demanded since the '70s, bringing in the likes of Randy Johnson and, um, Carl Pavano--but his focus was on rebuilding a farm system that Baseball America had ranked 27th in early 2004 and 24th before the 2005 season. A year later, that ranking had jumped to 17th, and an assessment by Baseball Prospectus a year after that put the Yankees at 4th of the 30 MLB teams. BP's Kevin Goldstein wrote in December, "After years of sitting near the bottom of the organizational rankings due to some drafts that border on reprehensible, the Yankees have begun to place more focus and priority on the draft, and the results have come quickly. Their bounty of young pitching is the envy of baseball..."

While the easy thing to do would have been to keep buying high on trade targets and free agents, Cashman took on Big Stein and won a commitment to reload (not rebuild) through player development. His last few drafts have been excellent, and the philosophy that informs them--spend relatively more on draft picks and international signings rather than spend exponentially more on free agents at or past their prime--is exactly what the Phillies will need to leverage the peaks of their superstar core.

Loyalty's nice. Winning is much better--or so I understand. Let's hope the Phillies are at least open to the possibility of bringing in a GM who knows how to build and sustain a durable winner.