Damon hasn’t closed the door on a return

While the Yankees continue to wait and wait and wait for the market for second and third tier free agent outfielders to develop, Johnny Damon toils in limbo, and he indicated to Nick Cafardo that he’s hasn’t completely closed the door on a return to the Bronx. “I knew I’d probably have to take a pay cut, just based on the way the economy is in this country and baseball,” said Damon. “But I thought I had a productive season and I think I showed people I can play and still do something at a high level.’’

Cafardo says Scott Boras came to the Yanks and proposed a $10M salary, however the Yanks are thinking more along the lines of $6-7M, a paycut Damon isn’t willing to take. He did say he’d be more than willing to play for Atlanta, who has a little bit of money to spend and a perpetual need for offense. Buster Olney says that executives from other clubs are convinced that he’ll end up back in New York.

It’s looking more and more like Johnny Damon is the Bobby Abreu of this offseason. In fact, we can say with certainty that he is. Abreu ended up taking close to a 70% paycut when he finally signed in mid-February, and while I’m not sure Johnny will have to take that big of a cut, it’s not going to be pretty.

Open Thread: Ravens at Patroits

The Pats are without God’s gift to slot receivers, but their key to success is stopping New York’s own Ray Rice. Enjoy the game.

Yanks, Hairston in ‘serious talks’

On Friday evening, Mike reported that the Yankees were interested in bringing back Jerry Hairston, Jr. for at least the 2010 season. Late last night, ESPN analyst and former outfielder Chris Singleton reported that the two sides were in “serious talks.” He noted that Hairston would provide an offense-minded backup for A-Rod and Derek Jeter while serving as an outfielder as well. The Yanks have expressed “strong interest” in Hairston, and the two sides will probably reach a deal soon. The Padres remain interested, but the Yanks are definitely the frontrunners right now. (Hat tip MLBTR)

The free-swingin’ Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner follows through on an RBI triple during the ninth inning of a game against the Mets. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

As the Yankees gear up to enter the 2010 season with Brett Gardner as one of their left field options, a divergent opinion on Gardner’s ability has emerged among Yankee fans. As I wrote on Friday morning, Gardner is not, as many proclaim, the next Bubba Crosby. Yet, some see his approach to the plate as a sign that the slap-hitting lefty, despite a .388 minor league on-base percentage, won’t excel at the Major League level.

One comment, in particular, is representative of what many believe to be Gardner’s shortcomings. Said Dalelama, “Let me end the suspense—Gardner sucks. But takes the prettiest third strike down the middle of the plate. Nobody leaves the bat on the shoulder like Brett.”

So we ask a question about Brett Gardner: Does he strike out too often and does he look at too many pitchers? First, some numbers: In his first 425 plate appearances, Gardner has struck out 70 times and 28 of those are of the looking variety. In 2009, his first full year in the Majors, he struck out 40 times in 284 plate appearances and 12 — or 30 percent — of those were looking. For his career, Gardner has struck out in 16.5 percent of his plate appearances but just 14.1 percent in 2009.

Overall, Major Leaguers struck out in 17.5 percent their plate appearances in 2009 and in 16.9 percent of the time in 2008. For now, it seems, Brett Gardner is around average when it comes to strike outs. For comparison’s sake, Mark Teixeira struck out in 16.1 percent of his plate appearances but 43 of his 114 strike outs — or 37.7 percent — were looking. Teixeira is a different type of hitter than Gardner is, but the point is that we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on those strike outs, looking or swinging.

Of greater concern is Gardner’s approach at the plate. We want Brett Gardner to be swinging at strikes and taking pitches out of the strike zone. As simple and obvious as that sounds, that is one of the more challenging tasks a hitter faces. Chris Harihar at iYankees ran the numbers and found that Gardner seems to have a good batting eye:

According to FanGraphs’ plate discipline data, Gardner swung at only 17.2% of the pitches that he saw off the plate. Believe it or not, when compared to eagle-eyed sluggers like Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui, Gardner actually swung at fewer pitches outside of the zone than any other player on the Yankees. Interestingly though, while Gardner did not swing at balls, he also did not swing at many strikes. Last season, the speedy outfielder swung at 50.7% of the pitches thrown to him that were in the strike zone (the team average was 64.6%). The percentage stands as the lowest in-the-zone swing mark of any Yankee last season. All in all, Gardner swung at 34% of the pitches he saw, which was, again, the lowest percentage of all the club’s hitters…

In addition, when actually swinging at pitches that were either in or out of the strike zone, in 2009, Gardner was actually very good at making contact. When swinging at a ball, the left/center fielder was rather Cano-esque, making contact 75.5% of the time. Furthermore, when swinging at a strike, Gardner made contact 91.9% of the time.

So here we begin to see the problem. Gardner has a very good eye for pitches outside of the strike zone but he seems to be a bit too discerning with pitches inside the zone. He took a lot of strikes — nearly half of them in fact — and seems to have earned a reputation as a player who will take too many pitches.

In the end, we see that Gardner’s reputation as a looker isn’t undeserved, but he’s not quite a strike out machine. For him to succeed in 2010, he’ll have to keep that K rate where it was last year or at least where it averages out for his career. If he’s striking out 21.3 percent of the time as we he was in 2008, he will have to be walking a lot more, but if he can strike out around 16 percent of the time and swing at a few more pitches within the zone while maintaining his contact rate, he could be an effective nine hitter and a speed threat on the bases.

Open Thread: Jets at Bengals

After putting a hurtin’ on them last week, the Jets line up to face the Bengals once again in today’s AFC Wild Card Game. Another 37-0 beatdown is unlikely, however expect the Jets to use the same smothering defense and brutally efficient ground attack to try and get them their first playoff win since 2004.

Use this thread to talk about this afternoon’s game, which starts at 4:30pm ET and can be seen on NBC.

Olney: Yanks in no rush to find a righty hitting leftfielder

In this morning’s blog post, Buster Olney says the Yanks are not in a big rush to bring in a righthanded hitting left fielder to caddy Brett Gardner. He says the team will simply wait out free agency to see how the market develops for Reed Johnson, Jonny Gomes, and the like. It makes perfect sense for the Yanks to operate like this, as there is no shortage of qualified players on the open market, and frankly because we haven’t heard of too many teams being interested in Johnson or Gomes or Rocco Baldelli or whoever else.

Would it be nice to upgrade in left? Sure. Is it that big of a hole that Brian Cashman should rush out and sign the best available player? No, of course not. It could be way worse than having two good-to-great defenders age-25 or less fit at the very bottom of this lineup.