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.