Is Damon a fit for the Giants?

Andrew Baggarly of the Mercury News assesses some potential Giants targets this off-season. We know that that the team needs bats, especially in the outfield. Could Johnny Damon be part of their plans?

Johnny Damon is interesting. He could address the Giants’ leadoff dilemma and he certainly fits the profile of a veteran that Sabean loves: A winner and all-around player who’s battle-tested in playoff environments. But the Giants didn’t have any conversations with anyone in Scott Boras’ camp at the GM meetings in Chicago, and I don’t think they’ll overbid for his services. Plus, while I’m told Damon would go anywhere, I have a hard time believing he’d just pack up and go to an NL team for the first time in his career.

Baggarly notes that owner Bill Neukom “has prioritized the farm system,” which means the Giants could tread lightly with the bigger bats, Jason Bay and Matt Holliday, because both would cost them their 24th pick. I’m not sure that will be an obstacle in adding a significant bat. If the Giants think that either player could turn their team into a serious contender, the draft pick cost becomes marginal.

Concerning Damon, he might not be a great fit for the Giants. Much of Damon’s value in 2009 came from home runs, and most of them came at Yankee Stadium, where the right field porch sits just 314 feet away. AT&T Park suppresses home runs (though is not really a pitchers’ park otherwise), especially for lefties — Bonds just made it look easy. True, he’d still provide the Giants value, but is he potentially more valuable to the Giants than he is to the Yankees? I’m not so sure. The Giants might inquire, but I don’t see them offering more than the Yanks, unless the Yanks either don’t want Damon back (for whatever reason) or lowball him.

We’re going to see Damon’s name connected to many teams this off-season. It’s part of having Scott Boras as your agent. Some destinations will make more sense than others, but in this case I don’t think the Giants will make a serious push for Damon. While he’d help, the home run suppression at AT&T Park makes him less valuable to them. They might even seek out Mike Cameron over Damon.

Baseball America’s Early Rule 5 Draft Preview

The Rule 5 Draft is just eight days away, yet Baseball America posted what they’re calling their Early Rule 5 Draft Preview today (sorry, subscriber only). I’m guessing that means we’ll get another, more comprehensive preview sometime within the next week. Anyway, they listed ten players that could end up being selected, two of whom are Colin Curtis and Kevin Whelan.

Curtis was said to have “improved his stock greatly in the Arizona Fall League … by adjusting his stance and finally driving the ball,” while Whelan could get picked because of his “92-94 mph fastball and plus-plus split-finger pitch.” Grant Duff was mentioned as another interesting name to watch in a sidebar, and I’ll add that Zach Kroenke is almost a lock to get picked because he’s a living, breathing lefthander that has had success in Triple-A.

Getting picked is one thing, sticking on the 25-man big league roster all season long is another. None of the above players would be a significant loss to the Yankees, especially the relievers since they have so much bullpen depth, but I’m not convinced any of them can stick on the ML roster all season. You might see a trade worked out though, something similar to last year’s Chase Wright-Eric Fryer swap.

Pondering a pinstriped Halladay but only for a year

One of the Yanks’ primary objections to any trade for Roy Halladay is the need to, in effect, pay twice to acquire the pitcher. The team will have to send some highly-touted prospects and a young Major League pitcher to the Blue Jays for the rights to Halladay, and then the Yanks would have to sign him to a long-term contract extension as the pitcher sits just one season away from a potential free agent payday.

We have, of course, been down this road before. In December 2007, the Yankees opted against acquiring Johan Santana because the team knew CC Sabathia would be available for just money after the 2008 season. This year, the team has been hesitant to leap into the Halladay fray because they know some top pitchers will hit free agency in both 2010 and 2011. Even if Doc is better and more durable than Santana, the Yankees aren’t going to change an approach that led to a World Series title.

But what if the Yankees only have to pay once for Halladay this year while gaining the opportunity to recoup some of the cost? Joel Sherman presents a one-year scenario in The Post today, and it goes a little something like this:

[O]ne faction of the Yankee front office has advocated trying to trade for Halladay, but not extend his pact. That way they would get Halladay on a very good contract for 2010 ($16 million) and then offer him arbitration after the season to secure two draft picks as a way to recoup some of the prospects given up in the trade.

According to Sherman, this idea is “not a strategy with much traction” within the Yankee Front Office, but I like the approach. It carries with it an idea that the Yankees would not have to give up as much to the Blue Jays if they aren’t requesting a negotiating window. It would simply be a player-for-prospects swap that would net the Yankees Roy Halladay’s age 33 season and the potential to pick up two first-round draft picks in the 2011 draft. With the Blue Jays are reportedly asking for a Major League-ready pitcher and an impact bat, the draft picks would definitely help offset the loss of young players.

Furthermore, Toronto could prefer this approach as well. What happens, for example, if the Blue Jays grant a team a negotiating window, but the team and Halladay can’t come to terms? Sherman, in a blog post, reported that Halladay is interested in Santana/Sabathia dollars, but Halladay will be five years older than those two were when they received their lucrative deals. It’s easy to see how a negotiating window could result in no trade.

There are, however, a few too many roadblocks for me to believe that a one-year rental would be a viable solution. First, the Blue Jays would have to feel that the Yankees’ offer remains the strongest even if other teams want the negotiating window. Perhaps, though, the other teams — assumed to be the Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Phillies — aren’t too keen on giving too many years and too much money for a 33-year-old pitcher. If no one wants a negotiating window, the Jays may not have that leverage. Right now, no one knows.

The other major problem is Roy Halladay’s full no-trade clause and his desire for some stability. With the no-trade clause, Halladay can veto any trade, and if a team is not willing to give him the dollars, he will simply reject the trade and file for free agency. Additionally, Halladay knows that the next deal he signs will be his last big contract, and he’ll want the stability and the guaranteed money up front. For pitchers, the end is just one arm injury away.

In the end, the idea of a one-year marriage with Roy Halladay is very appealing. It remains, however, a long-shot to come as the end to this saga. And so we wait for the Halladay sweepstakes to take shape.

Wang likely to hit free agency, but Yanks have some options

If the Yankees didn’t offer arbitration to any of their free agents, what does that mean for the players still under team control? Will the Yankees continue to play cautiously and avoid offering a contract to, say, Chad Gaudin, who could make $3 million or more in 2010? Or will they treat this like they would in every other year, offering contracts to most of their arbitration-eligible players?

The deadline to tender contracts is December 12, giving the Yanks about a week and a half to make their decisions. They have five arbitration-eligible players: Gaudin, Chien-Ming Wang, Melky Cabrera, Brian Bruney, and Sergio Mitre. To be clear, the Yankees are not offering arbitration to these players; an offer would imply that the player has a say in the matter. Rather, the Yankees will decide whether to tender them contracts. If they do, they have a few months to work out a deal, or else face an arbitration hearing.

After season-ending injuries in two straight years, Chien-Ming Wang remains a question mark. He’s been cleared to throw off flat ground, the first and very important step in rehabilitation. Still, he is far from a return, and although his time table looks optimistic it’s a near certainty that he won’t be ready for Opening Day. This would be a tough gamble for any team, but hey, these are the Yankees, right? When has a few million gotten in the way of a high upside project?

In years past, perhaps the Yankees would have tendered Wang a contract. Given their recent decision to not offer arbitration to any of their free agents, however, it’s clear that the Yankees aren’t operating as they have in the past. At this point I don’t think there’s any way the Yankees tender Wang a contract, meaning he will be a free agent come December 12. That could mean his departure from New York.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Given the arbitration decisions of last night — of the 74 players with either Type A or Type B status, only 24 were offered arbitration — it appears teams are preparing for a depressed market. This might mean that a team once willing to take a gamble on Wang (of which the Yankees would normally be one) might not. He’ll get a number of minor league offers, for sure, but in that case why would he leave the Yankees, the only team he’s known in his professional career?

The Yankees can make it an easy decision, too. They could work with Wang to create a split contract, one that would start as a minor league deal, but after certain milestones would become either a major league deal at a prorated amount, or else an out clause with a buyout parting gift. That could be based on date — say, if he’s not on the 40-man roster by June 1 — or a minor league innings milestone — after he pitches X number of innings in the minors, the Yankees would have to call him up or cut him.

This is the type of deal that could work out for both parties. The Yakees get risk control, and Wang gets some sort of guarantee. If the Yankees decide to cut him loose once he reaches the date or milestone in his contract, he can sign on with another team. Otherwise he’d be on the Yankees 25-man roster. It’s a level of security for Wang and a hedge for the Yanks. True, another team could offer this, but I think that if the Yanks did that Wang would accept.

In just over a week we’ll probably find Wang on the non-tender list. We then probably won’t hear much about him for a while, as the Yankees tend to their other off-season concerns. I do hope that the Yankees find a way to bring him back, even if it means a split minors-majors deal. Even at 80 percent of his 2006-2007 capacity, he’s an asset in the rotation. The Yanks can use all the pitching depth they can get.

Draft Order Tracker updated

Just a heads up, our 2010 Draft Order Tracker has been updated to include all of the Type-A and B free agents that were offered arbitration yesterday. As you know, I’ll update that sucker as free agents change teams and draft picks move around as compensation.

Just say no to Lyon

Brandon LyonLate last night we got word that the Yanks have expressed interest in free agent righty Brandon Lyon, presumably to fill the late-inning spot that will be vacated by Phil Hughes‘ move to the rotation. The Tigers did offer Lyon arbitration yesterday, however he’s only a Type-B free agent, so the Yanks wouldn’t have to forfeit a draft pick to sign him. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that there are enough red flags to hopefully scare the Yankees away from the guy who was once traded from Boston to Pittsburgh (for Mike Gonzalez) only to be traded back to Boston (for Gonzalez, again) nine days later.

Like current Yank Brian Bruney, Lyon closed for the Diamondbacks once upon a time. After the Red Sox sent him to the desert as part of the Curt Schilling deal prior to 2004, Lyon posted a 4.03 ERA with 42 saves in four years for the D-Backs, however his peripheral stats were nothing special (10.0 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 5.7 K/9). He moved on to Detroit last offseason, putting up a 1.69 ERA with a .515 OPS against after July 4th. Despite the on-the-surface excellence of his performance, Lyon’s peripherals again raise some eyebrows.

As has been the case his entire career, Lyon didn’t strike out many batters (6.5 K/9) in 2009, instead relying on a solid ground ball rate (1.31 GB/FB) to get the job done. More concerning is the spike in walks, as his 3.5 BB/9 was the highest of his career in a full season, majors or minors. Lyon’s always been somewhat homer prone as well, allowing exactly one homer for every nine innings pitched throughout his career. Oh, and there’s also the little issue of him having an unsustainably low .229 BABIP in 2009.

Moving on from the walk rate and BABIP stuff, it’s also worth noting that Lyon drastically changed his pitching approach upon his return to the AL. After throwing approximately 67% fastballs, 24% curveballs, and 4% sliders in his four years with Arizona, Lyon cut back to just 58% fastballs with 19% curves and 19% sliders last season. He also threw the fewest first pitch strikes (59.6%) that he has in seven years, and just 45.9% of his pitches were in the strike zone (hence the spike in walk rate). Lyon doesn’t miss bats either; hitters made contact on 80% of the swings they took against him in 2009, which was 10th worst among AL relievers, but actually the second best single season mark of Lyon’s career. Swings and misses, he will not get.

Perhaps the most alarming stat is that Lyon stranded a whopping 80.8% of the batters he allowed to reach base this year. The Major League average strand rate was 71.9% in 2009, and only four other relievers in baseball (Matt Guerrier, Andrew Bailey, Ronald Belisario, and Todd Coffey) had a LOB% that high. It’s far from a repeatable skill, especially since Lyon had stranded runners at about a 70% clip prior to 2009. The AL East is not a place you want to gamble on an end-game arm being able to strand an exorbitant number of runners.

Aside from all the problems with his peripheral stats, there’s also the issue of Lyon wanting a multi-year deal. GM Brian Cashman spoke yesterday about the volatility of relief pitchers and how successful the team has been at developing their own bullpen on the cheap in the last few years, and surely the wounds of Kyle Farnsworth and Steve Karsay have left scars. By no means am I saying the Yanks should avoid multi-year deals for relievers all together, I’m just saying they need to make sure they’re investing in the right guy if they’re ready to make that kind of commitment. Guys like Lyon, who don’t generate swings and misses and had superficially great seasons because of ridiculously low BABIP’s, don’t warrant that kind of commitment.

Sure, moving Phil Hughes back into the rotation will hurt the bullpen, but adding someone like Lyon and expecting him to fill that gap isn’t the answer. For comparison’s sake, David Robertson had a lower FIP (3.05 to 4.06), lower tRA (3.70 to 4.45), the exact same WAR (0.7), and nearly double the strike out rate (12.98 K/9) Lyon had in 2009 for less than one-tenth of the cost. The Yankees don’t have a glaring need for bullpen help, nor are they desperate for depth. There’s certainly no harm in kicking the tires, but just say no to Lyon, especially for multiple years. Don’t be fooled by the flashy ERA and WHIP, he is a fringe reliever in this division.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Boston Wolverine

If Damon departs, Cameron could be the man

Open season in the free agent market began a week and a half ago, yet we haven’t seen any major activity. Andruw Jones signed with the White Sox and Alex Gonzalez signed with the Blue Jays, but those aren’t the types of deals baseball fans crave. Absent this year were the big deals early in the season. Two years ago the Angels signed Torii Hunter in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year the Yankees already had a six-year, $140 million offer out to CC Sabathia. This year we’ve had nothing of the sort, and yesterday’s activities explained why.

At midnight, the deadline passed for teams to offer their own free agents arbitration. If a team signed a Type A or Type B player before his former team decided whether to offer him arbitration, the former team would receive compensation. The Angels signed Hunter and the Yankees made a huge offer to Sabathia because it was assumed that their teams would offer them arbitration. Things weren’t so certain this year. Of the 21 Type A free agents eligible for arbitration offers, only 10 received them. Teams proceeded with caution, not wanting to get stuck with a player at the wrong price.

Johnny Damon was among the Type As not offered arbitration. While this doesn’t make the Yankees’ desire to retain Damon any clearer, it does tell us that they do not want to pay him $15 million next season. If they do want him back, they want him on a lesser contract. Maybe that’s one year, maybe it’s one with an option, maybe it’s two. But the AAV of any contract will not be in the $13 million range, or else the Yankees probably would have made the offer.

(This actually made me think of Buster Olney’s quip from Monday, about the Yankees “getting the right player at the right price.” Maybe Damon is the right player, but his arbitration price would not be right. Hence, they declined. Compensation draft picks are nice, but not when they interfere with your major league roster construction.)

As he does with all of his clients, Scott Boras has been talking up Damon. He dropped a mention of “three to four teams who are seriously interested,” but that was in the hypothetical. It’s not quite clear which teams are interested in Damon, but if one of them is willing to offer Damon three or four years, he’ll soon be an ex-Yankee. Even if a two-year deal emerges, there’s no guarantee the Yankees will match. Again, they want their player at the right price. Those are two tough parameters to reconcile, but it seems to be the Yanks M.O. these days.

Even though Damon could return, the Yankees will likely move forward planning for life without him. Since an outfield of Cabrera, Gardner, and Swisher is not ideal, the team could look for help on the open market. That brings us back to a familiar name: Mike Cameron. Though the Yankees have not said anything about the free agent center fielder, they have expressed interest in him as recently as last winter. He was under contract with the Brewers then, but now, as a free agent, he could attract the Yankees.

Buster Olney opens a blog post with a bit on Cameron, who, at age 36, is one of the oldest center fielders in the league. Even so, he ranked third in the majors in UZR at his position, and eighth in wOBA. He wouldn’t match Damon’s offense, especially as a righty at Yankee Stadium, but he could help compensate with his defense. Combine that with a one-year contract, and Cameron might be, to borrow Olney’s phrase, a fit for the Yankees.

It sounds like Cameron could be interested, too, given the quote Olney provides.

“I feel like I can still play one of the better center fields in the game,” Cameron said the other day. “I feel like I can play with the best of them. At the same time, you have to understand if you want to be in the right spot, [moving to corner outfield] might be an option you want to take. … I’m just trying to get in the right spot to get in the playoffs.”

So he’s willing to move to a corner, and he wants to play for a playoff contender. It sounds like maybe, just maybe he was hinting at the Yankees. He could have been hinting at other teams, of course — perhaps the Red Sox would show interest if Jason Bay and Matt Holliday sign elsewhere. But there is definitely a fit with the Yankees. Hey, he even stays in touch with former teammate CC Sabathia, with whom he played for just half a season.

If Damon leaves the Yankees for a larger contract, I would think Cameron sits next on the list. He and Matsui, both on one-year contracts, would help the Yankees’ lineup in 2010 without tying up those positions long-term. That essentially buys the Yankees another year to evaluate their young players and come up with a longer term solution in the outfield. For Cameron it would mean playing for a contender — he could even play center, too, with Cabrera moving over to left. That would create a good defensive alignment while providing ample offense.