When discussing the pending free agencies of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, the refrain all season long was that the Yankees would probably keep one and cut loose the other. On the surface, that seemed to make sense. Both players will be 36 next year, so they don’t fit with the Yankees’ supposed plan to get younger. Yet they’re both productive players, so holding onto one makes sense.
The problem is of replacing production. The Yankees got a lot out of Matsui and Damon, and it’s unlikely that an internal candidate could replace their production. In 2009 Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira replaced Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu. But if the Yankees are leaning away from entering another long-term contract, who will replace Matsui or Damon?
The answer, as Joel Sherman notes this morning, could be themselves. Not only that, but they’re looking for a way to retain all three of their major free agents, which includes Andy Pettitte. Sherman quotes a team executive, who says, “I hope we can figure out a way to have them all back.” According to the exec, the Yankees are more focused on those guys than external free agents.
This makes sense to me. No, retaining all three veterans would not make the Yankees younger, but getting younger for the sake of getting younger is not a productive strategy. The Yankees need offensive output and solid pitching, and their own guys can provide that. Why go out on the market when the solution stands right before you?
The key to bringing back all three is getting them on one-year deals. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for Pettitte, who will likely only want a one-year deal anyway, and Matsui, who enters a free agent market flooded with DH types. It’s unlikely another team would give Matsui multiple years, so his return to New York could come at one year and a reduction to his $13 million 2009 salary. For Pettitte, it could be a one-year deal at perhaps double his $5.5 million 2009 base salary. If the Yankees bring him back, I doubt it will be a heavily incentivized deal.
Damon is a bit tougher a case. His defense declined markedly in 2009, and at his age it’s tough to call that a blip. He could certainly recover in 2010 — he was, after all, one of the top devensive left fielders in 2008 — but that’s not a given. Still, his bat is still valuable, especially in Yankee Stadium, and his postseason run shows that is season-ending slump isn’t too big a worry. Another team might be willing to offer Damon more years and money than the Yankees, though again I’m not sure other teams will be so apt to take the risk on an older player.
The Yankees could find themselves in a good position in these three negotiations. Bringing back Matsui, Damon, an Pettitte on one-year deals, perhaps one plus and option for Damon, seems like the best possible solution this off-season. That brings little risk to the Yankees, since these are short deals. It also reduces payroll because Damon and Matsui would not make the $13 million they did in 2009. The Yankees could then use their remaining resources elsewhere, rather than tying up money in a long-term contract for a player in his 30s, or trading prospects to fill a hole.
Getting younger is nice, but it is not a goal unto itself. The idea behind it is to get more flexible and more durable. The Yankees, however, could bring back these three veterans and still have a strong club for 2010. There aren’t many, if any, better options on the market that don’t come with their own sets of risk. I think it’s a good idea to bring back the guys they know, conserve their resources, and reassess after the 2010 season.