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Mets Hall of Fame case: Frank Cashen

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Cashen built powerhouse teams with two different organizations, but does he clear the very high standard for Hall of Fame general managers?

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The 13th installment of our Hall of Fame series features the career of Frank Cashen. To read any of the first 12 installments, click on the links below.

Mike Piazza

Keith Hernandez

John Olerud

Carlos Delgado

Jeff Kent

Robin Ventura

Carlos Beltran

David Cone

John Franco

Billy Wagner

Gil Hodges

Davey Johnson

Cashen became the Mets’ general manager in early 1980, and proceeded to orchestrate the most successful run in the history of the franchise. Through a combination of strong draft picks and shrewd trades, Cashen turned the Mets from perennial losers to the class of the National League. During Cashen’s twelve-year run with the team, the Mets registered six 90-win seasons, two 100-win seasons, two division titles, and the franchise’s second World Series championship. The Mets honored Cashen and his accomplishments by inducting the general manager into the team Hall of Fame in 2010.

The case for

Cashen had long runs of success with two different teams that he helped build. The first was the Orioles. In the fall of 1965, new team president Jerry Hoffberger hired Cashen to be the Orioles’ executive vice president. Cashen was Hoffberger’s head of advertising at the National Brewing Company, and had no prior experience in a major league front office. As the Orioles’ executive VP, Cashen was charged with overseeing the organization’s day-to-day operations and, especially at first, with building their brand. One of Cashen’s first orders of business was to hire Harry Dalton to run baseball operations as the team’s general manager, a decision that paid off in droves in the years to come.

Under the leadership of Hoffberger, Cashen, and Dalton, the Orioles averaged 97 wins per year from 1966 to 1971, captured four American League pennants, and won two World Series. Some of the Orioles’ success was no doubt the result of moves made by former GM Lee MacPhail and the previous front office. Still, the new front office brought the Orioles to the next level, turning them from an excellent team into a dynasty.

The Hoffberger/Cashen/Dalton front office’s biggest move was trading for right fielder Frank Robinson in December 1965. Robinson won the MVP Award in 1966 and was, by fWAR, the Orioles’ best player over the next six seasons. The front office went outside the organization to acquire other key members of Orioles’ dynasty run, including left fielder Don Buford, starting pitchers Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson, and relievers Grant Jackson and Pete Richert. Prior to the 1968 season, the O’s put one of the few remaining pieces of the puzzle in place by hiring Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver.

During the Hoffberger/Cashen/Dalton years, the Orioles did what Cashen would become famous for doing: They drafted extremely well. Among the Orioles’ notable picks were longtime catcher Elrod Hendricks (a Rule 5 draft pick in 1967) and longtime center fielder Al Bumbry. The organization’s three most prominent draftees were second baseman Bobby Grich, DH/outfielder Don Baylor, and third baseman Doug DeCinces, all of whom went on to have excellent major league careers.

In the fall of 1971, Dalton left the Orioles for a job with the Angels and Cashen, who had become increasingly involved in baseball operations, took over as the Orioles’ GM. In his four years at the helm, Cashen revamped an aging team by developing and promoting the prospects his front office had drafted in the years prior. He also made a number of key trades, bringing in starting pitchers Ross Grimsley and Mike Torrez, first baseman Lee May, right fielder Ken Singleton, DH Tommy Davis, and relief pitcher Bob Reynolds. The O’s averaged 90 wins per year during Cashen’s tenure as GM, and returned to the playoffs in both 1973 and 1974.

Cashen built a strong foundation that produced winning Orioles teams for a decade after his departure. Many of the players he brought in made major contributions to the Orioles teams that won the pennant in 1979 and the World Series in 1983. Among those players were Cashen draftees Mike Flanagan and, most significantly, Eddie Murray, as well as amateur free agent acquisition Dennis Martinez.

After four years at Carling National Breweries and in the MLB Commissioner’s Office, Cashen returned to the front office in 1980 as the Mets’ general manager. It was during his twelve years as Mets GM that Cashen cemented his legacy as one of the greatest front office executives of all time.

Cashen took over a Mets team that averaged a paltry 64 wins a year in the three years before he took over, and that finished in last place in each of those three seasons. After a four-year rebuilding period, Cashen’s Mets went on a tremendous seven-year run from 1984 to 1990. During that time, the team averaged 95 wins per season, capturing two division titles and a World Series championship.

Cashen’s formula for success was the same one he used in Baltimore: excellent drafting and player development, combined with big trades to address key needs. The first of Cashen’s two most important trades brought Keith Hernandez from St. Louis to New York in June 1983 in exchange for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. The second came in December 1984, when Cashen traded Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Germ Winningham, and Floyd Youmas to the Expos for Gary Carter. Cashen also famously traded Lee Mazzilli to the Rangers for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell in April 1982, and then flipped Terrell to the Tigers for Howard Johnson in December 1984. The general major pulled off his last major heist in March 1987, when he acquired David Cone from the Royals in exchange for Rick Anderson, Mauro Gozzo, and Ed Hearn.

Each of those players played considerable roles in the Mets’ long run of success in the late eighties and early nineties. In addition to those marquee players, Cashen brought in a number of important contributors from outside the organization. Among them were Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda, Frank Viola, John Franco, Kevin McReynolds, Ray Knight, and Tim Teufel, whom the Mets acquired via trade, as well as free agent acquisitions Rafael Santana and Terry Leach. The GM also made the wise decision in 1984 to promote former Orioles second baseman and Mets minor league skipper Davey Johnson to manage the big club. Johnson capably steered the Mets for six-plus winning seasons and became the winningest manager in franchise history.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cashen’s tenure with the Mets is the number of productive future major leaguers he either drafted or signed as amateur free agents. Cashen’s two signature draft choices were Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, whom the Mets selected in the first rounds of the 1980 and 1982 drafts, respectively. Strawberry became a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Mets and Gooden the team’s ace for many years, and both retired as among the greatest Mets of all time. In addition to those two players, Cashen’s long list of draft choices and amateur free agent signings include, in order, Kevin Mitchell, Doug Sisk, Lenny Dykstra, Randy Myers, Roger McDowell, Dave Magadan, Rick Aguilera, Jeff Innis, Kevin Elster, Gregg Jefferies, Todd Hundley, Butch Huskey, Jeromy Burnitz, Fernando Vina, Edgardo Alfonzo, Bobby Jones, and Jason Isringhausen. Scouting and drafting players is a very hit-or-miss proposition, so for an organization to churn out as many productive major leaguers as the Mets did under Cashen’s leadership is quite an accomplishment.

Cashen’s career serves as a perfect example as to why Hall of Fame voters should reevaluate how they treat general managers. Currently, there are just four Hall of Famers—Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, George Weiss, and Pat Gillick—"whose career[s have] been defined nearly exclusively as [team architects]." The sabermetrics movement in general, and Moneyball in particular, have highlighted the importance of the front office and the process that goes into building a team. Therefore, it seems odd that there are 22 managers in the Hall of Fame, but only four of the executives responsible for hiring those managers and building the teams that they manage.

The four GMs in the Hall of Fame are among the most accomplished in baseball history. However, that probably shouldn’t be the standard. It seems absurd, for example, that neither of the general managers who built the seventies-era Athletics and Reds dynasties—Charlie Finley and Bob Howsam, respectively—are enshrined in Cooperstown.

Baseball scholars Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt, authors of the book In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball, recently put together a ranking of the 25 best general managers in baseball history. Armour and Levitt rank Cashen as the 10th-best GM of all time. Surely the 10 best GMs in baseball history deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. However, even if you put Cashen closer to the 15-20 range, and if you believe that there should be about as many GMs in the Hall as there are managers, a 15-20 ranking would still put him over the line.

Cashen is unique in having built sustainable winning teams with two separate organizations. If you count his time as the Orioles’ executive VP, Cashen’s teams made eight playoff appearances, winning five pennants and three World Series. And those weren’t just boom-and-bust contenders. The Mets had the best record in baseball over the seven-year period from 1984 to 1991. The Orioles were outstanding during Cashen’s six-year run as executive VP, excellent during his four years as general manager, and were a winning team in each of the 10 years after he left the organization.

Cashen was one of the most talented front office executives to ever work in baseball. If Hall voters follow the lead of Armour and Levitt, and start putting the great general managers’ careers into their proper historical perspective, they’ll find that Cashen’s is at least worthy of serious consideration for some Cooperstown-style recognition.

The case against

Cashen’s biggest problem is that much of his front office success came when he wasn’t in direct control of baseball operations. Specifically, the Orioles dynasty made its four World Series appearances when Cashen was in more of an oversight role and before he took over as general manager. Therefore, while he undoubtedly built the powerhouse Mets teams of the eighties, it’s hard to argue that he was primarily responsible for building those championship Orioles teams of the late sixties and early seventies. If you consider only his time as GM, Cashen’s teams made the playoffs just four times, winning one pennant and one World Series, during his 16 years at the helm.

Compared to the records of the general managers currently in the Hall, Cashen’s doesn’t quite compare. Branch Rickey, for example, won eight pennants and four World Series as the Cardinals’ and Dodgers’ GM. Ed Barrow won a staggering 14 pennants and 10 World Series with the Yankees, followed by George Weiss’s 10 pennants and seven championships with the Bombers. Pat Gillick, who had extremely successful stints with four different organizations, won "just" three pennants and three World Series with the Blue Jays and Phillies. For Cashen to posthumously make it to Cooperstown, it seems that voters would need to expand their definition of a Hall of Fame GM, rather than compare him to those four GMs already in the Hall.

Prospects for induction

Since virtually all of Cashen’s contributions as a general manager came after 1972, he would likely be eligible for consideration by the Hall of Fame’s Expansion Era Committee. This is the same committee that elected Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre to the Hall in 2014, as well as Pat Gillick in 2011. The Committee’s next vote will occur in 2017, and every third year after that.

It will be interesting to see whether the baseball writers, especially those who cover the sport in today’s Moneyball era, ever decide to open the door to more general managers. If they do, Cashen could be a prime beneficiary.