Scouting The Free Agent Market: Johnny Damon

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Everything’s changed in the span of 72 hours. The Yankees went from being light on pitching and heavy on offense to having a surplus of starters and a DH vacancy following their Friday night bonanza. We know they have some interest in Carlos Pena, but he might be too expensive and also too inflexible for the current roster. A cheaper and possibly better fitting solution might be former Yankee Johnny Damon, who the team has already contacted.

Reunions almost never work out, especially when you’re talking about a player closer to his 40th birthday than his 35th. The Yankees wouldn’t be asking Damon to ignite their offense like they did during their World Series run three years ago, they’d be asking him to setting to a Tim Raines/Darryl Strawberry-esque complementary role. Let’s see what he’s bringing to the table these days…

The Pros

  • After a down power year with the Tigers in 2010 (just eight homers and a .130 ISO), Johnny clubbed 16 dingers with a .156 ISO last season. He was one two-bagger shy of the 30-double plateau for the third straight year and the 13th time in 15 years.
  • Although he always seemed to be battling nagging injuries during his first stint in pinstripes, Damon has played in at least 140 games every year since his rookie campaign in 1995. Durability is an underrated skill.
  • Johnny actually had a reverse split last year (.313 wOBA vs. RHP and .355 vs. LHP), but he’s shown no split over the last three years (.345 vs. .344) and a very small one during his career (.353 vs. .341).
  • Damon stole 19 bases under the run happy Joe Maddon in 2011, his most since swiping 29 in 2008 and his 16th straight year with double-digit steals. He’s also quite good at putting the ball in play, striking out in just 14.2% of his plate appearances last year and just 11.5% of the time in his career.
  • The importance is overstated, but there is some value in Damon being familiar with New York, the Yankees, and being in a pennant race. I hear he also gives some sweet veteran presents.

The Cons

  • At 38 years old, Damon is already in the danger zone when it comes to total collapse in performance. His wRC+ has gone from 128 in 2008 to 124 in 2009 to 109 in each of the last two seasons. Further decline is more likely than a rebound, which would put him at or below the league average offensively.
  • After walking in 10.7% of his plate appearances from 2006-2010, Damon’s walk rate dipped to a below league average 7.9% in 2011. His 27.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone was his highest in five years and the third straight year it’s increased. Despite the solid strikeout rate, his 8.1% swing-and-miss rate was his worst since the data started being recorded in 2002.
  • Playing the field regularly is not an option anymore. Johnny has played just 352.1 innings in the outfield over the last two years, with 82.9% of his plate appearances coming as the DH. He can probably spot start in left once in while, but anything more is asking for trouble.

True Yankee™ status is a powerful thing, and it’s been known to cloud judgment from time to time. Damon isn’t the guy he was in 2009 (.376 wOBA with 24 homers) and he’s not some kind of clutch god (.225 AVG and .287 wOBA with runners in scoring position last two years), and returning to the Yankees won’t magically revitalize him. Sure, Yankee Stadium will probably allow him to pop a few more homers, but at his age he’s more likely to keep slipping. Then again, stranger things have happened.

If the Yankees want to go real cheap on their DH spot next year, Damon’s probably the best they’ll be able to do on the free agent market. He’s a useful piece but no longer a difference maker capable of wreaking havoc atop the order, but he’ll stay in the lineup and put together tough at-bats, maybe even hitting the ball out of the park on occasion. An Andruw Jones-esque contract is probably in order, meaning just $2M with some incentives. Anything more than would be pushing it, especially since no other club is in a rush to sign him.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 16th, 2012

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
View Results

Open Thread: Saying Goodbye

Prospects are like being in love in high school. Our commitment level is through the roof and we’re convinced that no matter what everyone else says, it’s for real. No one understands, we’re in love. Ultimately we’re left heartbroken in the end, then we get over it and move on to the next.

I’m fairly certain that no Yankees prospect has captured more hearts than Jesus Montero, who is just a physical exam away from being a Seattle Mariner. We caught a glimpse of his hell raisin’ capabilities in September, but not nearly enough. His long-awaited big league debut did not disappoint, giving our years of rosterbation and minor league box score checking validation. Montero was going to be the next great Yankee, launching opposite field bombs over the short porch for the next 20 years. It was going to be glorious.

A year and a half ago we almost broke up because of a silly fling with a floosy named Cliff*. We weren’t thinking clearly back then and got caught up in the moment. This breakup is for real though, and it hurts. We’ll spend the next five weekends eating ice cream out of the container and watching bad movies on Netflix, wondering where it all went wrong. Then we’ll get over it. The green grass of Spring Training will draw us out of our misery and the pop of the glove catching that 97 mph fastball will make us feel alive again. None of us will ever forget Montero, but sometimes you can’t control things and you have to move on. He may very well be the one that got away, but chances are we’ll find someone else and fall in love all over again.

* * *

Here’s your open thread for the day. Like yesterday, I’m posting this early because of the NFL playoffs. The Texans and Ravens play at 1pm ET (on CBS), then the Packers and Giants give it a go at 4:30pm ET (on FOX). The Rangers are also playing later tonight, and that game will be on the NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus. So all you Time Warner customers actually get to see the team with the league’s best record tonight. Talk about whatever you like, anything goes.

* Yes, I know how wrong that sounds.

Update: Yankees calling around for offense, have spoken to Carlos Pena

Sunday: Pena confirmed that the Yankees have contacted him about their DH spot. This was inevitable, at some point they had to call and get an idea of his asking price and willingness to DH.

Saturday: Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees are calling around in search of help on offense, and they have some interest in Carlos Pena. The Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda acquisitions shored up the rotation in a big way last night, but they did lose their starting DH in the process.

Remember, the Yankees did claim Pena off waivers last August, but were unable to work out a trade with the Cubs. Feel free to speculate about DH options — Pena, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, etc. — but I don’t think this is the most pressing issue right now. They have plenty of offense plus a few in-house candidates (namely a rotating DH), so they can afford to be patient. It’s always easy to land a DH type at the trade deadline if needed.

Report: Yankees have talked to Damon about DH’ing

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have spoken to Johnny Damon about potentially returning to New York to DH. There’s a “very small chance” they would consider Jorge Posada for the role even though his retirement is not yet official, and apparently they don’t have much money to spend. We heard that before they gave Hiroki Kuroda $10M, right?

I plan on looking at Damon a bit more tomorrow, but I do think there’s some merit to bringing him back as a part-time DH. If nothing else, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Johnny rebounded nicely with the Rays last year, hitting 16 homers with 19 steals a year after going eight and eleven with the Tigers. His walk rate (7.9%) was his lowest in six years however, and we shouldn’t ignore any signs of decline at age 38.

The Bartolo Era Ends: Colon Heads To Oakland

Via Jayson Stark, Bartolo Colon has agreed to a one-year deal with the Athletics. He’s a stopgap solution for a team that traded away both Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill this offseason, and will be without Brett Anderson until at least midseason due to Tommy John surgery.

Colon, 39 in May, was an option for the Yankees right up until Friday night, when the Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda stuff went down. He was the team’s second best starter in the first half of 2011, painting corners with 95 mph heat and backing lefties off the plate with two-seamers inside. Once he started throwing 91-92 and wasn’t hitting the corners as frequently, it stopped being fun. Good luck Bart, thanks for those 164.1 IP.

The Hard Choices of the Offseason

(AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel)

The offseason is the worst.

Not just for the total lack of baseball, though that’s a pretty big chunk of it. Not just the lesser sports which we are all forced to tolerate while we wait for our gentleman’s game to come back. There’s also that the decisions made during the cold winter months are a lot more permanent than the year-to-year fluctuations players have with their numbers. You can excuse away a bad year, especially if you’re trying really hard, but it’s not as easy to do so with a whopper of a trade or a big signing. Rationalizing a low average with caught line drives or a low OBP with a large strike zone against is one thing, but there’s no such protections with a big roster moves.

When the season starts, all — or many of — the numbers are influenced by randomness and factors that neither the players nor the ownerships/front office can control. That makes it easy for a fan looking for upside to feel better about his or her self. Every particular at-bat and game has so much go into it that, in most cases, there’s a bright side. Maybe the team was robbed of some stellar line drives. Maybe it was a display of warning track power. Maybe you were no-hit, but the opposing pitcher was so dominant it wasn’t even fair. Game-to-game stuff like a win or a loss can be rationalized.

Players, too. The perfect example for this is, of course, Adam Dunn. I don’t think anyone expects Adam Dunn to be as legitimately downright vomit awful as he was in 2011. That’s impossible, right? It could happen, I guess, but I (and many experts, and I assume Kenny Williams) don’t think so. Having a year like that means everything goes wrong all at once. So White Sox fans can comfort themselves knowing things will probably get better, even if Dunn isn’t the hitter he used to be. Yankees fans can have plenty of optimism in this area as well: maybe Derek Jeter stays that second-half monster he became after his injury. Maybe Alex Rodriguez stays healthy with his experimental knee surgery and his still-impressive power. Maybe Eduardo Nunez learns to field. Maybe Mark Teixeira stops hitting so many pop-ups. But even if they don’t, there’s lots of statistical noise here we can use to rationalize it. A.J. Burnett is a victim of a high HR/FB rate, for example. He’s going to be bad. But he could be slightly better.*

During the offseason, there’s nothing you can do after or during a trade. You’re stuck with the players your GM picked pick up, so here’s hoping they’re good ones. There’s no statistical noise in ‘Jesus Montero was just traded for Michael Pineda.’ You just have to hope that Brian Cashman knows what he’s doing (I personally do), and that everything will work out. It’s not like next year, Cashman gets to try again and see if he can get more for Montero, or if Montero has a massive year and Pineda’s awful, he gets to tweak the trade like a player’s mechanics to make it better. Once a trade or signing is done, that’s it. So long, thanks for all the fish. Hope everything turns out well for your team. Maybe it won’t! Of course, maybe you’ve traded Nick Swisher for Wilson Betemit.

There’s no going back. Not being able to go back is scary. All you’ve got left is this new guy, looking around at his new environment and staring at the hole he’s expected to fill from the guy you kicked out. And that’s on top of hoping that the GM wasn’t emotional about this, either: having your top prospect being traded for peanuts because he hates your bunt-loving manager sounds pretty damn awful to me. You’re not gonna be able to blame that on a torn muscle.

I don’t know how I feel about the Montero/Pineda trade. It could be great. It could be awful. It makes perfect sense in my head, what with New York needing arms and Seattle needing a bat (especially considering Cashman has been trying to give Montero to Seattle for a while now), but that’s a different statement than if I I like it. I guess it’s hard to make a decision because whether I like it or not, that’s the way it is. Even if I hate it, I don’t hate it enough to stop being a Yankees fan – Pineda’s an exciting possibility, he’s shown he’s capable, and he’s got a hell of a slider. Of course, like all Yankees fans, I loved Jesus Montero like you love a baseball player — that screaming power, the youth, the team control, all the potential and none of the inevitable disappointment. I’m sure I’ll either grow to love Pineda (in a good ending), or have bitter, hateful thoughts at Montero getting AL MVP and decide the world is a joyless, terrible place (in a bad ending). That’s just how being a fan is. The fact is, of these players will be subject to the random variation that comes with the long baseball season, and we’ll be justifying what they do no matter what. But we’re stuck with who we got, and all we can do is hope it all works out. (For us, not for them. Sorry, Jesus.)

* I get some kind of sick masochistic joy out of defending A.J. Burnett. I don’t know either.
** For other views on the Montero/Pineda trade, I, like Mike, strongly advise Lookout Landing, The Best Mariners Blog.
*** Sorry I’ve been absent for a while. You will now be subject to me on a more regular basis.