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.

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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.

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.

Mailbag: Johnny Damon

Still insane. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

Cory asks: Word is Johnny Damon cleared waivers, is he worth looking at to fill the DH role? It seems like he would be at the least a slight upgrade over Chavez/Jones, but would pretty much close the door on Montero being any more than a bench option this season.

Damon did clear waivers, at least according to Jayson Stark. That means the Rays are now able to trade him to any team for a player that a) also cleared waivers, b) was claimed off waivers by the Rays, or c) is not on the 40-man roster. Money really isn’t an issue here, there’s less than $1.5M left on Damon’s contract this season. He does have some weird incentives tied to attendance, but I think those go away if traded since they’re dependent on Tampa’s attendance. Either way, it’s only another $750k at most.

So the real question is this: Is Johnny actually better than what the Yankees already have at DH? Even with his Friday homer off CC Sabathia, he’s still hitting jut .261/.315/.395 with ten homers in 481 plate appearances. The Trop is one of the more extreme pitchers’ parks in the game, so it’s not a surprise that Damon has a .356 wOBA on the road and a .270 wOBA at home. The current cast of DH’s for the Yankees is Eric Chavez (.323 wOBA vs. RHP in 81 PA) and Andruw Jones (.380 wOBA vs. LHP in 103 PA), though we should also include Jorge Posada in that mix (.351 wOBA vs. RHP in 228 PA). Damon’s platoon split is basically non-existent (.315 wOBA vs. RHP and .309 vs. LHP), and based on just this season’s numbers, he’s not an upgrade anywhere. Unless you believe he’ll hit like he has on the road for the rest of the season.

There’s also the roster space issue. Someone would have to get the axe to make room for Damon, and frankly both Chavez and Jones have proven to be very useful in their prescribed roles. Eduardo Nunez can’t go anywhere because he’s the backup middle infielder, and they’re not going to cut ties with Posada. They’re just not. The Yankees could get a little creative and swing a trade for Damon on the night of August 31st, so they wouldn’t need to play with a wonky roster for an extended period of time because of September call-ups the next day. Of course, there’s basically no chance the Rays will go along with that, and they’ve already shown an unwillingness to trade within the division.

Johnny’s still a good player, but he’s no longer great or even very good. He’s basically an average hitter these days, which is an upgrade over what the Yankees were getting out of their DH’s for most of the year. I think I’d rather have the Chavez-Jones tandem going forward, unless they can finagle something on the 31st and use him as an extra bat in September. There’s a pretty good chance that if he wasn’t a former Yankee, we probably wouldn’t even consider Johnny a viable option. There’s some nostalgia afoot.

Link Dump: Mauer, Damon, Prospects

Need some help getting through the rest of the work day? I’ve gotcha covered…

Mauer on Montero

While we discussed the merits of using Jesus Montero as the backup catcher this morning, Joe Brescia of The Times was busy talking to Joe Mauer about the Yankees’ uber-prospect and the perils of being a big catcher. “Too big. Not quick enough. I heard everything under the sun,” said Mauer, who stands 6-foot-5, two inches taller than Montero. “My advice to him is try and learn as much as you can. He’s lucky he has Jorge Posada, a pretty good catcher to learn from. And he has Russell Martin there now, too, another good one to help him. Those two guys that have been around the block. He should follow those guys around and learn as much as he can.”

The former AL MVP also emphasized the importance of getting to “know your customers,” meaning the pitching staff. “Know your staff and the little things that they respond to. You have to learn the pitchers and what they are capable of doing and not doing. Try to put your pitchers in the best situations they can to succeed.”

The Pitch to Damon

Before he signed on with the Rays, we heard that the Yankees had expressed some interest in bringing Johnny Damon back to the Bronx, presumably as a part-time outfielder and part-time designated hitter. RAB fave Ken Davidoff spoke to Johnny recently, who informed him that the Yankees pitched the idea of using him twice a week in the outfield and once a week at DH. Damon just wasn’t ready to commit to being a glorified bench player yet, so to Tampa he went.

The Yanks still would have needed a right-handed power bat for the bench if they had signed Damon, but not necessarily an outfielder. If Johnny had agreed to that arrangement, perhaps it would have opened the door for Montero to break camp with the team even more. Who knows.

BA’s Top 150 Prospects & More

The crew at Baseball America published their annual list of the top 100 prospects in the game last week, and a whopping six Yankees prospects made the cut. But you knew that already. What you may not know is how the list is compiled, which is what Jim Callis explained in this week’s Ask BA. Their six editors each put together a personal top 150 prospects list, then they mash ‘em all together in a spreadsheet and talk out the individual rankings. In addition to the guys that cracked the top 100, three other Yankees farmhands appeared in the personal top 150’s: Slade Heathcott (two ballots, peaking at number 133), Hector Noesi (4, 92), and Eduardo Nunez (4, 109).

Within the same piece, Callis says the Yankees have the best group of catching prospects in baseball, and that’s even if Montero ends up having to move off the position. That’s some hefty praise right there.

Rays land Damon … and Manny

Via Jon Heyman, the Rays have agreed to terms with both Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Damon gets $5.25M and some incentives, Manny gets just $2M. That’s the steal of the offseason right there. Tampa gets some much needed punch, even if both guys are well into their decline phases. Not even $8M for the pair? Unbelievable.

The Blue Jays traded Vernon Wells earlier tonight, freeing up a ton of cash in the future. Yeah, the AL East is not gonna be fun.

A Torrid Love Affair

AP Images/Kathy Willens

Well, it’s done. The Yankees have signed Rafael Soriano for three years and $35 million dollars. Given that Cashman said he was not interested in giving up the first round pick, it came as a bit of a surprise. In retrospect, though, everyone should have expected this.

Two words: Scott Boras. Boras and the New York Yankees have a long history, tied together by big numbers made by superstar players. This isn’t the first time Boras (with some help from the Yankees ownership) has managed to wiggle his grubby little hands deep into pinstriped pockets. As a matter of fact, it’s happened over and over. It makes perfect sense that the team with enormous financial power spends a lot of time dealing with the agent known for record-breaking contracts. Two powerhouses with complementary results should go hand-in-hand, but most of the time, both sides can’t win in a negotiation.

Exhibit A: In 1998, Bernie Williams was coming off a .328/.408/.544 season where he banged 21 homers and 100 RBIs. The offseason started off pretty bleak, though: George Steinbrenner had made it quite clear that his highest offer for the beloved center fielder was five years and $60M and not a dime more. Boras insisted that he had seven- and eight-year offers from mystery teams. There were plenty of people who thought this was a load of bull, but Boras held his ground, so the Yankees eyed Albert Belle instead. But Boras fought. He brought up meetings with both the Diamondbacks and the much-hated Boston Red Sox, who had were rumored to offer our dear Bernie seven years and $90M. When Belle signed with the Orioles, Boras pounced, and before anyone knew it, Williams was a Yankee to the tune of seven years and $87.5M, way above what Steinbrenner originally wanted to pay. In the end, the contract was a pretty good one: Belle suffered hip issues that knocked him out of baseball just two years later, and Bernie hit .298/.386/.480 and signed on for one last year in 2006.

Exhibit B: Alex Rodriguez. People could write books about the Rodriguez-Boras relationship, to say the least. In another example of shrewd Boras negotiating, Alex Rodriguez snapped himself up a 10-year, $252M contract from the Rangers. The franchise seemed to have forgotten they actually had to have that money to pay it, and began searching for trade options. In 2003, there was an attempt to trade Rodriguez to the Red Sox, but the complicated negotiation would have involved losing $30M. Interestingly enough, the trade fell through not because of Boras (who was fine with Rodriguez losing the cash), but the MLBPA, who felt that losing guaranteed contract money set a bad precedent. As per usual though, Red Sox loss was Yankee gain, and the Yankees acquired Rodriguez in February of 2004. But where Boras really showed off his skills was when Rodriguez opted out of the remaining three years and $72M of his contract in 2007 in favor of renegotiation. This decision, as I’m sure you all remember, was leaked during the 2007 World Series and I bet the New York Post had some really, really good front covers discussing the matter in their, ah, unique way. To calm the storm of New York rage, Rodriguez tried to soothe things by contacting the Yankees office directly, at the advice of Warren Buffet. As Rodriguez attempted to repair his public image (never his strong front) Boras took advantage of the fluctuations of the Yankees front office to secure the absolutely insanely absurd 10 year/$275M contract Rodriguez plays under today. He had a bigger hand in the incentives: each time Rodriguez passes a person on the all-time home run list, it’s an additional $6M in his pocket. If Rodriguez becomes the all-time home run leader, his contract will exceed $300M, the first ever in professional sports. I’m sure I’m not the only one who grimaces and tries to ignore how much we’re paying A-Rod in favor of the numbers he puts up, but Boras will be Boras. Truly the best worst contract ever.

I’m glad to say that the story for Johnny Damon is much shorter and sweeter. It was December 2005 and the Boston Red Sox  refused to budge on their 3-year contract offer for their center fielder, the caveman-like Johnny Damon. Damon, who had already admitted that he doesn’t want to be a Yankee, was looking for more than three years, and the Sox would not negotiate down from Boras‘ five-year plan. Boras even tried to get in contact with the Sox’s owner, Larry Luchino, but to no avail, and soon enough, Damon was a Yankee to the tune of four years and $52M. He would go on to hit .285/.363/.458 in the pinstripes and looked significantly less like a yeti, both great things about his tenure in the Bronx. I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember his 2009 double steal against the Phillies. The story has a sad note for everyone who loved Damon as a Yankee, though, and for once Boras’ demand for cash came back to bite his client. Damon demanded no less than the $13M he was paid for any further deals, and the Yankees said no. When they refused to budge, Damon was forced to take a one year, $8M offer for the Tigers. He’s a free agent now, so we’ll have to see how that ends up.

The story continues. In 2008-09 offseason, the Yankees were coming off their first season without October baseball since the strike, and they were out for blood. What do you do when you’re the New York Yankees and you want to win? You use your biggest advantage: in a mindboggling display of financial might, the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett. Teixeira, another Boras client, picked up the record for highest paid first baseman with an eight year, $180M contract of his own. While Teixeira’s 2009 numbers were strong (he lead the league in RBIs and home runs), his glacially slow start in 2010 contributed to a down season. Here’s hoping that he’ll be make himself close to worth the $22.5M he’ll be getting in 2011.

Soriano is only another chapter in the long story between Boras and the Yankees. “Like Williams and Rodriguez, he secured himself an exorbitant amount of money; his numbers from the previous year were stellar enough to pretend to justify both the years and the cost, at least for the Yankees. think it’s safe to say that Soriano and his three year, $35M contract won’t be the last time these two powerhouses meet. Andrew Brackman, for example, is a Boras client, and I’m interested to see how he develops as a pitcher and what Boras can do for him. While Boras clients almost never completely live up to their contracts, there is no doubt many of his clients have been incredibly important and still quite valuable to the current Yankees and those of the recent past. Let’s hope Soriano continues this trend.