Damon: I don’t want no stinkin’ paycut

Oh, Johnny, what ever are we going to do with you? Your public statements are so fickle, and the Yanks would like to bring you back. But let’s be realistic. You’re 36, and 36-year-old outfielders who are declining in the field don’t get to sign a multi-year deal without some sort of pay cut.

But more on that in a minute. First, a recap. Previously on “As the Johnny Damon Turns,” we discussed how Boras and Damon seemed to be at odds over Damon’s free agency. On numerous occasions during the season, Damon expressed a desire to stay in New York. He’s enjoyed his time with the Yankees, and his bat certainly took to the home run-friendly new stadium.

Yet, just a few days after the Yanks won the World Series, Scott Boras, Damon’s agent, spoke out against a hometown discount. Still, Damon, on a Sirius XM appearance, discussed his wishes to stay in New York, and Boras must have cringed. By publicly reiterating his desires to remain in the Bronx, Damon was slowly losing negotiation leverage. Why would the Yanks feel the need to pay him much if he actually wants to stay in the Bronx? Shouldn’t he take fewer years and less money for the stability and happiness it could bring?

Yesterday, in what will probably be his last public statements in a few weeks, Damon again spoke about staying in New York, but this time, his words had a twist to it. Now on board with the Boras program, Damon says he won’t entertain a paycut. Mark Feinsand reports:

Damon’s preference is to remain with the Yankees, and while he has made that wish well-known, sources close to the veteran say he isn’t about to give the Bombers a big discount to stay in pinstripes. Although he’s told friends all season that he would take a shorter deal from the Yankees than he would elsewhere, it is believed that he would want a higher average annual salary if he were to take fewer years.

A source close to Damon said that the outfielder believes his statistics over the past two years have been good enough that unless the market crumbles entirely like it did last winter for Bobby Abreu, he doesn’t feel he should take a pay cut. Damon chose not to discuss his contract desires Sunday, saying only that his first wish is to stay in pinstripes.

“I want to continue to be on a team that can win and to play in front of great fans – and we know that the Yankees fill both of those,” Damon said. “I think everyone knows my desire to come back. Still, every time I’ve been a free agent, I’ve ended up switching teams. It’s the nature of the beast. If people are interested, I’m going to listen.”

A few weeks ago, Mike noted how the Abreu contract would provide a comp for the Damon negotiations, and that reality is slowly coming to pass. Boras will probably not allow Damon to take less than Abreu, and the uber-agent probably has designs on a deal similar to Damon’s $13 million-per contract that just ended.

So what to do? As I discussed yesterday, the Yankees have to know when to turn over their roster. Although a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal for Matt Holliday doesn’t strike me as a good idea, over-committing to Damon isn’t either. At best, Damon is a subpar left fielder with a good bat; at worst, he’s an adequate replacement for Hideki Matsui as the Yanks’ full-time DH. Anything longer than two years is too long; anything more than $10 million a year is too much.

Will the Yanks not offer anyone arbitration again?

Free agency officially started last Friday, but unlike last winter, the Yanks are approaching this offseason at a snail’s pace. “I’ll talk to our guys first,” said GM Brian Cashman. “And after I have my conversation with our guys, I’ll be full blown into the marketplace.” He said that today at the World Series DVD premier, which means he still hasn’t talked business with any of the team’s free agents, most notably Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Andy Pettitte.

However, before the team can even begin to have serious discussions with those guys, Cashman will need to sit down with ownership to hammer out the budget. Or at least I assume that needs to happen first. It would make sense if it did. Anyway, that meeting with the Steinbrenners apparently  won’t happen until next week, which is after the December 1st deadline to offer free agents arbitration.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but that indicates to me that the team isn’t planning on offering any of their free agents arbitration. After all, if you’re going to offer a player arbitration – especially well-compensated players like Damon, Pettitte, and Xavier Nady – you have to be prepared for the guy to accept. How can you risk offering these players arbitration before you know what the exact 2010 budget will be?

Given his unspoken stance of “Yankees or retirement,” there doesn’t seem to be much of a point in offering Pettitte arbitration. He’s only a Type-B, and if he accepts, he’s looking at a $12-14M guaranteed deal. Declining to offer him arbitration affords the team some flexibility to negotiate a lower base salary. Xavier Nady is a no-brainer offer on the other hand, because he’d earn just $7-8M should he accept, and there are worse things in the world than Nady on a one year deal. That assumes his elbow is sound, of course.

The most interesting case is Damon, the team’s only Type-A free agent. After pulling down $13M next year, he’d likely earn $14-15M in 2010 should he accept arbitration. We found out yesterday that Scott Boras is going to use Bobby Abreu’s two year, $19M contract as a blueprint for Damon’s next deal, so he’s already made it known that he’s willing to take less money. The two draft picks would be nice (assuming another team would actually give up a draft pick for Damon), but maintaining roster flexibility and sticking to an offseason plan would be even nicer. Of course, offering Damon arbitration could very well be part of that plan.

Like I said, I might be reading a little too far into this, but I don’t think my logic is insane. If you offer all three guys arbitration before knowing your budget (or before ownership is on board with your offseason strategy, for that matter), and they accept, suddenly the Yanks could find themselves in quite the predicament. The Yanks surprised everyone by not offering any of their free agents arbitration last year, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if they did the same this year.

Open Thread: Building a team with up the middle players

The late 90s Yankees were blessed with incredible talent in up-the-middle positions. Those teams are a testament to the strategy of developing pitching and up the middle players, and using trades and free agency to fill in the other positions. It’s just not easy to find players like Jorge, Jeter, and Bernie on the free agent market, or even in a trade from another team.

Part of the reason the Yankees succeeded in 2009 was that they had excellent talent up the middle. Jorge Posada is one of the best hitting catchers in the league. Jeter is near the top, if not at the top, for shortstops. Cano is one of the better hitting second basemen, and Melky Cabrera hits league average, which is above average for center fielders. The Yanks appear ready to reload, too, as their two top prospects are a catcher and a center fielder.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, friend of RAB Tommy Bennett looks at the up the middle free agents. As expected, the class isn’t all that inspiring. Thankfully, the Yankees have a superior player at every position except maybe center field (Mike Cameron), but even in that case they have a young player who has shown promise. He’s easily an acceptable alternative to Cameron.

Unfortunately, the article is subscriber-only. This is Tommy’s takeaway line, with which I fully agree. “The lesson to be drawn is that if you’re looking to add more than one of these players on the open market, you might want to take seriously the possibility that you’re not going to be competitive this year.” This is true in most years, and 2009 is no exception.

That said, this is your open thread for the evening. Treat it well.

For Halladay, cost would include Phil or Joba

As Roy Halladay continues to hover above this off-season as Johan Santana did two years ago, the Blue Jays’ demands for him are coming into view. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Alex Anthopoulous, the new Toronto GM, will have to make a splash if he ships out Halladay. He’ll need a good, young, sure bet to take Halladay’s place and set Toronto on the path to AL East competitiveness.

With that in mind, it is clear that any trade talks with the Yanks would involve the names Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes being bandied about. After all, these are two kids who can get out AL East hitters while pitching in pressure-packed stadiums in New York and Boston. What GM wouldn’t try to demand one of the two from Brian Cashman?

Yesterday, in his regular Sunday round-up in the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo confirmed that the Jays would readily give up Halladay for Phil or Joba. He wrote:

The Yankees could easily get into the Roy Halladay hunt if they’re willing to part with Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain, which they apparently are. The one player they’d love to hold on to is Austin Jackson, their future center fielder who could keep their outfield costs low.

This is a tantalizing tidbit from Cafardo for so many reasons, and as we like to talk about rumors, talk about it we shall. First, Cafardo casually mentions that the Yankees are “apparently” willing to part with Hughes or Joba. This unsourced development is a drastic turnaround from recent years when the Yankees have not wanted to let any of their young pitchers out of their grasp, and I’m not so sure I believe it here.

As with Santana, Roy Halladay comes with one year guaranteed and the option to negotiate for more. He will be 33 on Opening Day, a good four years older than Santana was on Opening Day 2008 when he made his Mets debut, and while Halladay may be more durable and better equipped to deal with the rigors of age than Santana, the Yanks would be acquiring one year of an old pitcher for a few years of Joba or Phil. If it didn’t make sense a few years ago before we had a better sense of what Joba or Phil could do, it doesn’t make too much sense now.

Next, Cafardo’s belief that Austin Jackson is “the one player” the Yanks would love to hold on to seemingly flies in the face of conventional wisdom. While Cafardo mentions Jesus Montero in another paragraph about the Yanks’ catching prospects, I find it hard to believe that Montero would be made available over Austin Jackson. Montero has a better bat and plays one of the key up-the-middle positions. Jackson profiles as a future center fielder, but Montero ranks higher up on my the Yanks’ prospects list. I’d be far more open to moving A-Jax than I would Montero (or Hughes and Joba, for that matter).

Cafardo’s piece allows us to confirm the high price for Halladay, but anyone following the Blue Jays would know it already. I don’t believe the Yanks intend to trade Phil or Joba for Halladay, and I don’t think the team should.

On World Series winners and roster turnover

Throughout the late 1990s, the Yankees won three World Series in a row and came within two outs of a fourth with much of the same cast of characters. In fact, 14 players on the 2001 team were also on the 1998 team, and other than the DH spot, the regular 1998 starting lineup took the field during 2001.

This stability makes the Yankees unique among World Series winners. Most, according to a Jonah Keri article in The Times this weekend, turn over 28 percent of their roster — or approximately seven players — after winning. These moves make teams better, younger and more able to maintain a competitive edge, and the current iteration of the Yankees would do well to heed Keri’s warnings.

First, some numbers. Keri used the introduction of the Wild Card as a baseline, and he found that six of the 13 World Series winners, not counting the 2009 Yankees or the extreme outlier 1997-1998 Marlins, turned over less than a quarter of their rosters and combined to lose 47 games — or nearly eight per team — more than they had in their World Series years. Those teams that turned over more than 25 percent lost just three combined games more the following year. Clearly, a savvy general manager along with some roster machinations can lead to repeated success.

For the Yankees, Keri’s lessons are particularly apt:

The Yankees face another regression-related situation. They had an old roster in 2009. Two of the top three starters, five of the nine starting batters as well as the Hall of Fame closer were 33 or older.

It is possible that 35-year-old Hideki Matsui’s knee problems are behind him and that 28-homer seasons will remain the norm. It is conceivable that Johnny Damon’s tying a career high for homers at 35 (he turned 36 on Nov. 5) means we should expect a big power threat for the next half-decade. It is imaginable that Andy Pettitte, a 15-year veteran who has flirted with retirement in recent years and has nearly 3,000 regular-season innings under his belt, will keep winning games well into his late 30s and beyond.

But it is not likely. Few players are more likely to see a regression in their numbers than those getting well into their 30s who have suddenly had a big bounce-back season. The Yankees caught lightning in a bottle with Matsui, Damon and Pettitte, who are free agents, as well as incumbent 30-somethings like Jorge Posada. Even (gasp) Mariano Rivera cannot fight Father Time forever.

The Yankees, warn Keri, shouldn’t grow complacent, and by extension, neither should the fans. It would, in fact, be foolish for the Yankees and their fans to claim this team can repeat what it did last year without questioning some holes. To that end, the Yanks should look to free agency to boost the team. A few younger bats are out there, and some hurlers who could replace Andy Pettitte loom as well.

But there is a part to Keri’s thesis that he didn’t explore in his column. I e-mailed Jonah today to ask him about the so-called sentimental players who have won over fans by winning a World Series: What if the ‘sentimental guys are 1) on short term deals and 2) are better than other options on the market?

Jonah’s answer was not surprising. “You definitely want to go with incumbents if nothing better is out there,” he wrote. “Of course, something better clearly is out there, between Holliday and Bay, plus maybe some trade candidates. So yes, it could very well be a question of deciding whether, say, Damon at 2/28 is better than Holliday at 7/120. There’s no easy answer to that one – you’d probably just go for the better (and younger) player, since the Yankees can obviously afford it.”

The Yanks can afford Holliday today, but do they want to be paying him in four or five years? That’s the real rub, and the answer is “probably not.”

Oftentimes, good teams are, in part, the product of career years and a good deal of luck. With their walk-off wins and overall season numbers, the Yanks certainly exhibited a combination of the two in 2009. To avoid a fall, expect some roster turnover. If the incumbents can be had for cheap and the big fish sign elsewhere for too much money, as Keri said to me, the Yanks would be golden, and that right now is in the hands of the Front Office.

Teixeira, Jeter finish second and third in MVP voting

Joe Mauer grabbed 27 of 28 first place votes, and took home AL MVP honors today by a rather wide margin. Mark Teixeira came in a distant second, while Derek Jeter trailed him for third place. Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers finished fourth, and got the only other first place vote. I’m calling Detroit bias.

Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano, and CC Sabathia also received top 10 votes. Mauer was the deserving winner, no doubt about it. (You can view the full voting results right here.)

Going after the big Fish

Josh JohnsonLate last week we got word that contract extension talks between the Marlins and righthander Josh Johnson had reached a stalemate, and there doesn’t appear to be any way around it. “We made it clear that it was going to be this year or it wasn’t going to happen,” said Matt Sosnick, Johnson’s agent. “It was now or never. And the Marlins agreed.”

Johnson’s camp was looking for Zack Greinke money (four years, $38M), but the Marlins reportedly offered just three years and $21M, which is Nate Robertson money. Instead, the two sides are now preparing their arbitration cases, which should result in Johnson making somewhere around $5M in 2010. A team friendly salary for sure, but the Marlins are looking at a $36M payroll for next season with $32M already committed before arbitration raises to Johnson and nine others. The Fish will surely trade off some expensive players this offseason, it’s what they do.

Considering where he is in his career, Johnson’s trade value is as high as it can be. He had a tremendous season in 2009 (5.5 WAR) and still has two years of team control left. As we’ve seen in the past, guys with just one year of control left don’t bring as big of a return. The price will surely be steep, but if you’re going to unload some of your best young players, Johnson is the kind of guy you do it for.

There’s always concern whenever you import a pitcher from the National League and stick him in the AL East, however Johnson isn’t like most pitchers. He has true front-of-the-rotation power stuff that enables him to do the two best things a pitcher can do: strike guys out and generate ground balls. Here’s the list of pitchers who struck out at least eight batters per nine innings, walked no more than two-and-a-half batters per nine innings, and got at least three groundballs for every two flyballs in 2009:

  1. Josh Johnson

That’s it. Not Felix, not Lincecum, not even Greinke. No one else. Just JJ. His fastball is a legit mid-90’s heater, and he backs it up with a sharp mid-80’s slider and split-change that he probably doesn’t use often enough. He’s got a huge powerful frame (listed at 6′-7″, 250 lbs on the Marlins’ site) that screams durability and innings eater. The Yankees got a first hand look at him on June 20th of this year, when he allowed just three hits and one run over seven innings against our beloved Bombers. Here’s the video highlights from that game.

Joe Girardi is familiar with Johnson, having managed him in Florida during his rookie campaign in 2006. Of course, there’s the incident in when Girardi sent Johnson back out to mound after an 82-minute rain delay, which was followed by Johnson experiencing some forearm tightness, and soon enough Tommy John surgery. That’s the only injury of Johnson’s career, so it’s not much of a red flag considering how well he’s recovered. In fact, his innings buildup had been textbook up to that point.

Year Age Level Innings IP Increase
2002 18 Rookie 15 -
2003 19 Low-A 82.1 +67.1
2004 20 High-A 114.1 +32
2005 21 Double-A/MLB 152 +37.2
2006 22 MLB 157 +5

Johnson was drafted in 2002, hence the partial minor league season. He probably threw another 40 IP in high school that year, so don’t sweat the big jump. The rain delay game was on September 12th, 2006, what ended up being his last outing of the season. If he finishes off the month healthy, he’s probably at 180 IP with a +28 IP increase on the season.

Looking around at some other instances in which a pitcher of Johnson’s age, caliber, and cost were traded, the return seems to be pretty consistent: two top young players with two or fewer years of service time, plus some lesser prospects. Think Javy Vazquez (the first trade), Dan Haren (the second trade), and Josh Beckett. All three fetched two young stud players plus some lesser prospects. Let’s use that as a blueprint.

As I see it, the Yanks have three players that qualify as true studs: Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Jesus Montero. Austin Jackson is a notch below those guys. As for Joba and Hughes, I think you have to draw a line and make it one or the other, not both. That means Montero has to be included in the deal. Fine. That’s life, you have to give something to get something. The Marlins have been looking for a catcher of the future for years, and Montero would fit that bill. Plus they could always flip him elsewhere. Whatever they end up doing with him, I don’t really care.

Getting back to Joba and Hughes; both have four years of team control left, but Joba has proven more in the big leagues up to this point, primarily by staying healthy as a starter over a full season. I consider both guys to be interchangable, and I don’t really have a preference who stays and who goes. I know it’ll hurt, but think about it, if those guys reach their ceiling, what will they be? Well, pretty much what Josh Johnson is right now. I don’t see how you’d have a problem giving up a young guy that might turn into that kind of a pitcher for a young guy that already is that kind of pitcher. I guess you can let Florida pick between them, then begrudgingly agree to make it sound like they got the guy you want to keep. Whatever, I’m not exactly an expert at negotiating.

As for the rest of the package, I’d make pretty much everyone else in the farm system fair game, plus the younger guys in the big leagues: Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Ramiro Pena, Frankie Cervelli, David Robertson, and Phil Coke. Florida wouldn’t have any interest in Robbie Cano because a) he’s getting expensive (owed $19M over the next two years), and b) they already have a second baseman in Dan Uggla. Even if Uggla’s traded, Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan would take over at second, his natural position.

Obviously some guys are more valuable than others based on where they are in their careers. K-Rob™ is more valuable than Mark Melancon, Ramiro Pena is more valuable than either Eduardo Nunez or Reegie Corona, etc. You’d prefer to keep the guys already in the big leagues, even if means giving up that one extra second or third tier prospect. Let’s assume that Zach McAllister – who is basically the Yanks’ best starting pitching prospect in the minors – is part of the deal, as is Eduardo Nunez. The names really aren’t important, I’m more concerned about prospect status. Any combination of a Grade-B and a Grade-C prospect will work. If you want to call it Arodys Vizcaino and Abe Almonte, that’s fine with me, I don’t care.

So, is a Johnson for Joba, Montero, McAllister, and Nunez fair? Thanks to the wonderful world of spreadsheets and sabermetrics, we can find out. Using the trade value calculator created by Sky Kalkman of Beyond the Box Score and my WAR/salary assumptions, we can determine that Johnson has a trade value of $52.6M, while Joba is worth $31.8M in a trade. Victor Wang’s research says that top 10 hitting prospects (Montero) are worth $36.5M, Grade-B pitchers (McAllister) $7.3M, and Grade-C hitters age 22 or younger (Nunez) $0.7M. That makes the total value of the Yanks ‘package $76.5M.

So yeah, maybe that package would be overpaying. Perhaps Florida should kick in a prospect, or maybe even one of their nine other arbitration eligible players since they’re looking to unload some of those guys. I’m not going to get hung up on a difference of 45.4% when there are so many assumptions in play. On the surface, that four player package is at least on par with what the Red Sox gave up to get Josh Beckett, if not greater. However, the Yanks aren’t absorbing $18M worth of Mike Lowell, and Josh Johnson now is better than Beckett was then (Beckett’s WAR the year before the trade was 4.0). Beckett just had the added hype of being the second overall pick and a highly touted prospect and World Series MVP. I feel comfortable saying that package is at least in the the ballpark.

It’s not often you get a chance to acquire a pitcher of Johnson’s caliber. A young, power arm with his best years still ahead of him. This isn’t 32-year-old Roy Halladay, or Johan Santana coming off a sketchy second half. Johnson’s a bonafide franchise cornerstone type of pitcher that will be paid below market value for the next two years, possibly longer if he’s down with re-opening discussions about a contract extension after a trade. He’s not Felix Hernandez, but he’s not far off. The Yankees would do well to bring him to the Bronx.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images