Through the first five months of the season, Johnny Damon was sitting pretty. Playing out the last year of his Yankee contract, Damon was putting up a career year, and on Sept. 2, he was hitting .293/.373/.524. He had tied his career high in home runs with 24 and seemed destined to reach the quarter century mark.
Since then, though, it’s been one long slump for Johnny Damon. He ended the regular season on a 17-for 79 slide and hit just .215/.319/.278 over his last 92 plate appearances. He struck out 17 times, knocked out just five extra-base hits and never reached 25 home runs.
This poor offensive play has continued into the playoffs. Against the Twins, Johnny Damon seemed lost at the plate. He went 1 for 12 and struck out four times against Carl Pavano and the Twins’ pen last night. By his fourth at-bat, some Yankee fans were wondering if Brett Gardner deserves a start. Of course, Damon has more power potential than Gardner, but during the regular season, Damon’s play would probably earn him a mental health day off.
Generally, I wouldn’t be too worried about a 100-plate appearance slump. Damon is in one now, and it’s probably just a matter of time before he breaks out in a big way. But two aspects to Johnny Damon — his contract status and his willingness to play through injuries — makes me wonder if we should put some more stock into this slump.
As much as it is a cliché, Johnny Damon is a gritty player. He hates to sit, and he doesn’t share injuries with everyone. He’ll play through sore legs, a sore back, sore anything. Usually, we can tell when Damon is hurt because it impacts his performance, and he plays as he has been lately. His swings are late; he flails in the field; his game just isn’t on.
Meanwhile, Damon is also playing for a contract. He turns 36 in a few weeks, and Damon has seen the market for 36-year-old outfielders. He saw Bobby Abreu settle for a deal significantly lower than he expected, and he knows that he’ll be up against Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and Abreu on the free agent market this winter. He needs to play, and he needs to perform to prove his worth.
Finally, we arrive too at the Yankees’ specific aspect of this story. Although the Yankees’ players are focused on beating the Angels to reach the World Series, the Yankees’ Front Office knows that, shortly after the World Series ends, the free agent frenzy begins. The team will have to decide whether or not to re-sign their own free agents, and the Yankee brass may be gearing up to make a choice between Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. Do they put stock into Matsui’s late-season surge and Damon’s late-season swoon? Do they look to get younger in left while retaining Matsui as a DH? Do they jettison the creaky-kneed Hideki while keeping Damon, the guy who has expressed a keen desire to stay in the Bronx?
Damon’s poor play of late isn’t making this decision any easier than it was, and it must gnaw at him to know that everyone is watching and evaluating and determining his future for him. For now, I hope last night’s Golden Sombrero is the end of his struggles. The Yankees will need his power at the plate and his speed on the bases for their ALCS match-up against the Angels.