A brief (and flimsy) case for Johnny Damon

When the Yankees traded away their designated hitter last Friday evening, they created a hole of sorts in their lineup. Most teams would love to enter Spring Training missing only a left-handed bat who could DH against right-handed pitchers, but for the Yankees, the need to fill this slot — not quite the 25th man but close enough — became their last remaining off-season to-do.

Long before the Montero-for-Pineda deal had time to marinate, the Twittering masses were throwing names around left and right. One involved a familiar face who was last seen in pinstripes in 2009. That, of course, was the 38-year-old Johnny Damon whose bat just hasn’t been the same since he left New York. Damon, who could be had for just a few million dollars, reportedly has approached the Yanks about the job, but the club hasn’t yet jumped. They’re waiting for something — maybe a lower price, maybe another move.

At first, I didn’t love the idea of reuniting with Damon. He was certainly fine during his tenure in the Bronx even if he never really held down that center field job for which he was originally ticketed in 2006. He made his mark on Yankee history with a key play in the 2009 World Series and left, as he did from Boston, wanting more money than the Yanks were willing to pay him. As he left, he claimed he always wanted to play in Detroit and later Tampa Bay. It just rubbed me the wrong way.

But rubbing us the wrong way shouldn’t have much to do with baseball analysis, and when it comes to Damon’s DH candidacy, the analysis has been lacking. Most pieces calling for his return resemble this one from The Post’s Back Page blog. They are appeals to emotion, to Damon’s clutchiness in the playoffs (while ignoring his 4-for-17 ALDS this year), to his True Yankee-ness. Some want Damon back because he reminds us of good times and great wins.

Forget that. Let’s make a real case for Johnny Damon. On the surface, his numbers aren’t that appealing. His walk rate dropped a bit, and he’s not getting any younger. His .742 OPS is fine, but the Yanks can effectively get his production vs. right handed pitchers from Andruw Jones without paying anything more. On the season, Damon OPS’d .715 vs. righties while Jones posted a .709 mark.

If we drill down even deeper though an alluring if shaky picture emerges. Outside of Tropicana Field against right-handed hitters, Johnny Damon had 221 plate appearances and posted a .291/.357/.477 line, good for a .364 wOBA. Even factoring in a decline as he gets older, production like that while playing home games in lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium could make Damon a potential steal for the Bombers. That argument though rests on what is effectively one-third of Damon’s 2011 campaign. I wouldn’t eat breakfast off a table that flimsy.

Ultimately, Damon could be an answer for the right price. The Yanks can jettison a $2 million failure; just ask Randy Winn. Or else the team could opt to use the DH for Derek Jeter and A-Rod while Eduardo Nunez gets too many at-bats before a bat finds its way to the trade market. They probably couldn’t go wrong either way. We don’t need to resort to emotion though to make a solid case for Damon. A sample size nearly too small to be significant will just have to do instead.

Open Thread: The Montero Write-Up

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Every year for the last five or six I’ve published my list of the Yankees’ top 30 prospects right before the start of Spring Training, and it’s a blast to look back and see how hilariously wrong I was on some guys. I wait until mid-February for a very specific reason, so I can take stock of the farm system after all the offseason trades have been made. As you know, Jesus Montero is on his way to the Mariners with just a quartet of physical exams holding things up, but I had already written up his capsule for the Top 30. Rather than just delete it all, I’m going to post it right here, right now…

1. Jesus Montero, C/DH, 22
Take a good look, because this will almost certainly be Montero’s last appearance on any prospect list. The Yankees and their fans caught their first glimpse of the wunderkind in September, as he produced a stout .421 wOBA with four homers in 69 big league at-bats in the season’s final month. That came after a sluggish May and June in Triple-A, during which time he was benched two games for a “lack of energy” as reports surfaced that he appeared bored with the minors’ highest level. Despite that, he set a career high with 22 homers in 2011 (majors and minors).

Montero’s calling card continues to be his mammoth power, particularly to the opposite field. That was on full display in September, when three of his four homers and two of his four doubles went out to right and right-center field. He also excels at getting the bat on the ball, at least relative to most power hitters (career 16.5% strikeout rate in the minors), though he doesn’t walk all that much (7.8%). All the hard contact he produces projects to a .300+ batting average down the line. There are no questions about his bat and offensive potential, but questions still surround his defense. Montero is big and slow behind the plate, and although his arm is strong, his throwing suffers because of a long release. The Yankees used him behind the plate just three times in September, instead deferring to Romine whenever Russell Martin needed a day of rest.

After five minor league seasons, the waiting is over for both the Yankees and their top prospect. Montero is slated to serve as the primary designated hitter in 2011 with occasional starts behind the plate likely in the cards, and he’ll be expected to replace some of the right-handed pop the team is losing as Alex Rodriguez continues to decline. The Yankees have high expectations for Montero as Joe Girardi showed by batting him fifth on a number of occasions down the stretch in September. We’ve been hearing all about this kid for years now, and now it’s time to see him in action. Tomorrow has finally come.

Here’s your open thread for the night. All three hockey locals are in action tonight, but you folks know what to do by now. Have at it.

Physicals still holding up last week’s moves

Via Jon Morosi and Bob Klapisch, the Michael Pineda trade and Hiroki Kuroda signing are still not official because some of the players involved have been delayed in taking their physicals. Both Jesus Montero and Jose Campos are stuck in their home country of Venezuela at the moment, and Kuroda is still at home in Japan. It doesn’t sound like either move will be made official this week, so we wait.

Scouting the Trade Market: Brandon Allen

While there are a number of low-cost and low-risk DH options on the free agent market, that’s not the only place the Yankees will look to fill that void. There are also players on the trade market who can slot into a platoon DH role for the Yankees. While they might cost something in terms of players, they can still come at a relatively low price. They can also come with a low risk level. One such name that came up this morning is the Oakland A’s first baseman Brandon Allen.

Allen started his career in the White Sox system after they drafted him in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. He then went to Arizona in the Tony Pena trade in mid-2009. Since then he’s had a rough go in the majors, though he has continued to obliterate the Pacific Coast League. Here’s a look at how he could fit the Yankees’ needs.

Pros

  • He’s a lefty with power. In 1,116 PA in AAA, he has an ISO of .269. While the PCL is known as a hitters’ league, Allen’s ISO is still well above the league average. In fact, his .273 ISO last year was more than 100 points higher than league average. He also beat the league average by more than 100 points in 2010. He also displayed prolific power before he reached AAA and the PCL.
  • He can also take a walk. The last time he had more than 75 PA at any minor league stop and had a walk rate under 10 percent was in 2007 — in A-ball. In 367 MLB plate appearances he has a 10.9 percent walk rate.
  • He also has contact skills. From Baseball America’s 2010 scouting report: “He toned down his swing and hit more balls to the opposite field in 2009, allowing him to hit a career-high .298 in the minors.” From Kevin Goldstein’s scouting report of the same year: “Allen has a solid approach and enough bat to profile as an everyday first baseman in the majors, combining plus power with a surprisingly solid contact rate, leaving scouts to project him as a .280+ hitter with 20-25 home runs annually.”
  • His biggest weakness seems to be inside pitching, something that Kevin Long, with his now-famous home run drill, might help fix.
  • While he has struggled in the majors, he has fared much better against right-handed pitching. That plays to his favor, considering the Yankees’ current DH situation.

Cons

  • While his major league experience is limited, he has failed pretty badly in that time, hitting just .210/.287/.383 in 367 PA. He struggled even more after the trade to the A’s, hitting .205/.259/.356 in 158 PA last year.
  • Contact rate has been a huge issue. While he kept his strikeout percentage in the low 20s in the minors, he has been in the mid 30s in the majors. Again, as Baseball America has said, it’s partly because “pitchers exploited him on the inner half.” While Long is known for his work in this area, his ability to fix Allen is not guaranteed.
  • At a time when they could have used a first baseman, the Diamondbacks did things like sign Andy LaRoche and Russell Branyan, and trade for Juan Miranda, rather than give Allen a real shot. They also traded him for a middle reliever, which gives you an idea of what they thought of his ability to adapt. That the A’s are shopping him again is another warning signal.
  • As with any player on another team, the Yankees would have to trade living, breathing players for him.

One reason why the Yankees, in all likelihood, won’t acquire Allen is that his upside might be better realized by a lower-tier team. The excellent Pirates blog Pirates Prospects has already put together a trade target article on him. He could also better help a team like the Indians; they could use a first baseman, particularly a lefty-hitting one, pretty badly. Since the Yankees would want him only to DH, and probably part-time at that, they might not be willing to part with the kind of prospects that other teams will, even if those prospects amount to No. 5 starter types.

Still, it’s always nice to have a look at a young left-handed bat who has flashed power. If the Yankees believe that Kevin Long can provide a fix, then he’s a worthy acquisition target. He would pair well with someone from the list of DHs available on a minor league contract, to give the Yankees a few low-cost, low-risk options. It does appear that Allen has an option remaining, too, reducing the risk of acquiring him. Chances are the Yankees won’t get far here. That’s fine. Perhaps Allen isn’t their guy, but he’s just another option in a long list of potential LHB DHs.

Cole Hamels, Curtis Granderson and the tough choices ahead

(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

One of Larry’s objections to the Pineda/Montero swap is the future availability of Cole Hamels on the free agent market. If the Yankees can pick up Hamels to slide in behind Sabathia, the argument goes, then perhaps they should have kept Montero to provide cheap production out of the designated hitter slot over the next few seasons. I wrote about Hamels last week, speculating that the Yankees might be preparing to make a run at him next winter.

Last Friday’s trade radically altered the landscape of the Yankees roster. In acquiring Michael Pineda from the Mariners, the Yankees acquired a potential number one or two starter with five years of cheap team control. According to well-sourced reporter Joel Sherman, the price was particularly important because the team is serious about getting under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. With the new roster in place, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the team will be able to afford Hamels, or their own Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and/or Nick Swisher, all of whom hit free agency in the next few years.

In projecting precisely whom the Yankees will be able to afford, it helps to have a handle on a reasonable estimate of future prices. Towards that end, I asked  Joe, Mike, Ben, Moshe and Larry to all provide me their best estimates for what they expect Swisher, Granderson, Cano and Hamels to pull in in their new contracts. These were the results of our inputs:

Robinson Cano: AAV of $22.0M, high of $23M, low of $20M.
Nick Swisher: AAV of $12.67M, high of $15M, low of $12M.
Curtis Granderson: AAV of $17.0M, high of $18M, low of $15M.
Cole Hamels: AAV of $21.67, high of $23M, low of $20M.

I’ll be using these figures going forward, and also making a few assumptions about the future Yankees payroll. The first one is that the Yankees won’t allow Robinson Cano to leave via free agency. He’s a homegrown star at a difficult position to fill, and he’ll only be 31 when he hits the free agent market after the 2013 season. It’ll hurt, but I expect the Yankees to resign Cano at $22M per year, the average listed above. The second assumption is that Alex Rodriguez will hit his 660th home run this season, and will hit his 714th home run in 2014, thus triggering his second $6M bonus. The third assumption is that Russell Martin does not sign an extension with the Yankees, and that they’ll use Austin Romine by 2014. With this in mind, this is what the roster would look like heading into the 2012-2013 offseasons:

The specific names attached to the $500k salaries aren’t all that important, but the idea that a cheap player will occupy the fifth starter’s spot and most of the bullpen. Banuelos, Betances, and Warren are interchangeable with whatever young player your heart desires. The cost is important.

The Yankees will have roughly $40M to spend on their rotation, bullpen, center field, right field and designated hitter positions. If they pay Granderson $17M and Swisher $12M, they’ll have around $10M to fill out the final rotation spot and the bullpen. They could go with a cheap arm in the fifth starter position, fill out the back end of the bullpen with minimum salary guys, and sign a decent set up reliever. If they choose to let Granderson walk and sign Hamels and Swisher, they’d have about $7M left over for the center field position (or left field, if they shift Gardner to center), bullpen and DH. This would be difficult to pull off. If they chose to forgo both Granderson and Swisher and sign Hamels, then they’d have around $18M left for two outfielders, the DH and the bullpen.

There doesn’t seem to be any way that the Yankees can get under $189M with Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Cole Hamels all under contract at market rates.  From a financial perspective, the “easiest” solution would be for the Yankees to acquire a cheap, cost-controlled outfielder (like a Domonic Brown) who could step in and fill Swisher’s role for cheap. This would allow the Yankees to move Gardner to center and allow Granderson to walk, replacing Gardner with a relatively cheap left fielder and spending big on Hamels and the bullpen.

Personally, I’d very much like for them to spend on Hamels, probably even at the expense of Curtis Granderson. The offense would take a bit of a hit, but the idea of a Sabathia-Hamels-Pineda-Nova rotation is enticing. That’s just me, though, so I’m providing the link to my Google Doc with all the relevant numbers. If you save your own version, you can edit and mess around with various roster scenarios and post your version in the comments. Any way you cut it, though, there are some very hard decisions ahead for the Yankees front office.

Revisiting the Burnett-for-Bay idea

(Photos: Burnett via Reuters, Bay via Getty)

The Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda pickups changed the Yankees’ roster situation quite a bit, as they’re now heavy on pitching but lacking that one DH bat. Thanks to a MSM article earlier this offseason, some were beating a “trade A.J. Burnett for Jason Bay” drum a few weeks ago, a trade I called a no-win situation back in October. Both players are terrible and all the Yankees would have done is rearrange some furniture, not actually satisfy a need. They needed Burnett’s innings at the time and also needed to keep the DH spot open for Jesus Montero. Thanks not the case anymore, and now a trade like this actually makes a little sense.

As a pure bad contract-for-bad contract swap, it helps that Burnett and Bay have very similar contract situations. The Yankees owe their enigmatic right-hander $33M over the next two years while the Mets owe their disappointing outfielder $32M over those same two years. The only problem is that Bay’s deal has this horrible $17M vesting option for 2014, which will kick in with either 600 plate appearances in 2013 or 500 plate appearances in both 2012 and 2013. Omar Minaya was good at throwing those ugly vesting options into his free agent contracts.

We’ve seen both Francisco Rodriguez (another Minaya contract!) and Carlos Zambrano waive their vesting options as a condition of a trade over the last few months, and the same thing would have to happen with Bay. If he isn’t willing to pass on that option, forget the idea all together. Pay him the $3M buyout per the contract terms, but he and his contract have to go away after two years. That vesting option is a total dealbreaker if he’s unwilling to waive it. The buyout essentially makes Bay’s contract a two-year, $36M deal, so a straight-up trade means the Mets would save themselves $3M. Given their financial situation, I’m sure that will at least get their attention.

In terms of actual on-the-field stuff, the Mets can simply plug A.J. into their rotation alongside R.A. Dickey, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee as Johan Santana continues his perpetual rehab from shoulder surgery. Right now they have guys like Miguel Batista and Chris Schwinden set to compete for the fifth starter’s job, which somehow sounds worse than giving the ball to Burnett 30 times a year. The move to the easier league and the bigger park (although the walls at CitiField are being brought in this winter) should help Burnett’s homer problem, at least in theory. The only real issue for the Mets would be replacing Bay in left, though they do have a few kids on the 40-man roster worth trying. Maybe the Yankees could kick in a Chris Dickerson or Justin Maxwell to facilitate a trade.

As far as the Yankees go, the perfect world scenario calls for Bay to DH in 2012 and move to corner outfield spot in 2013. The Yankees could let Nick Swisher leave as a free agent after this coming season and still have a viable replacement for a year, buying them some time to figure out things out long-term and with regards to the 2014 austerity budget. This is all predicated on Bay being healthy and not awful, which he hasn’t been for two years. He’s missed more than 90 days over the last two years due to a concussion (suffered on this play) and an intercostal muscle strain, and when he was on the field he produced just a .325 wOBA and a 104 wRC+. It’s not a CitiField thing either; Bay’s hit .279/.367/.445 at home and .228/.310/.336 on the road during his two years with the Mets. His defense is below average but not as bad as the advanced metrics would lead you to believe; none of the systems have figured out left field in Fenway Park yet.

Just to make this perfectly clear, the Yankees and Mets aren’t discussing a Burnett-for-Bay swap as far as we know. The idea started as speculation in some random article back in September or October, and it’s sorta lingered throughout the winter. Given the drastic change in the team’s roster dynamics, I figured it was worth revisiting. It’s one of those ideas that looks great on paper and makes perfect sense in your head, but in reality is much more complicated. It would be great if the Yankees could shift Burnett’s money around and turn a superfluous starting pitcher into a corner outfielder/DH, but bad contract-for-bad contract swaps almost always turn out the same way for everyone: bad.

Breaking down the payroll, part three

It’s been less than a month since we last checked on in the Yankees’ projected 2012 payroll, but a lot has changed. Just about all of it in the last week or two as well. The Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero trade didn’t change anything financially (at least not significantly) since they’re both in their pre-arbitration years, but the Hiroki Kuroda signing and arbitration settlements sure did. Andruw Jones agreed to come back, Cory Wade inked a new deal … and that’s pretty much it. Here are the gory details…

The money listed is in terms of average annual value, which is what the luxury tax is based on. The players’ actual salaries are slightly different in some cased, but nothing crazy.

So that’s all of it, 22 players owed a maximum of $208.875M and a minimum of $206.475M. One of those 22 is not on the team anymore, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume Martin, Gardner, and Logan each win their arbitration cases. That gives us 21 active players and a $208.875M payroll, though Feliciano is only active in the sense that he’s taking a spot on the 40-man roster. It’s really 20 active players for that price.

The Yankees have been talking about spending just $2M or so on a DH, but I think that’s their way of trying to drive Johnny Damon‘s down more than anything. I expect them to end up spending about $4-5M on the DH, but anything more would surprise me. If they sign a DH for $5M and fill the remaining four roster spots with guys making the league minimum, the 25-man payroll would be approximately $215.875M, up a couple million up from the $212.7M that was luxury taxed in 2011. We haven’t even included the rest of the 40-man roster or stuff like player benefits (which gets taxed as well) yet either.

The other 15 players on the 40-man roster will make the league minimum, though let’s call it 16 players since Feliciano will be stashed on the 60-day DL so another player can be added at some point. Calling it $8M for those players is conservative ($500k each), since they’ll make a substantially smaller salary while in the minors. The $8M is probably closer to $3M in reality, if that. Player benefits are taxed and typically estimated at $10M, which brings us to $233.875M, conservatively. Just imagine if they add a player or two at the trade deadline.

None of us are privy to the Yankees’ financial info, but chances are they can support a payroll much higher than the $200M or so they’ve been spending in recent years. We can’t say that for sure, but it’s a reasonable assumption. I do however think the commissioner’s office and players union have discouraging them from raising payroll any further, just like they’ve encouraged small market teams (the Marlins and Athletics, specifically) to spend more in recent years. Raising the payscale for many second and third tier players over a handful of superstars is probably a net win for the union.

Anyway, that’s my one-paragraph semi-conspiracy payroll theory. As Stephen will explain later today, the club is going to have to make several tough decisions if they’re serious about getting under the $189M luxury tax threshold two years from now, but for now we don’t have to worry about that. The Yankees will again spend an absurd amount of money of their 40-man roster in 2012, far more than any other team.