Johnny Damon and the shadow of 3000

As the Hot Stove League draws to a close and the Grapefruit League looms, the Yanks in a holding pattern of sorts. They haven’t yet traded A.J. Burnett, and they haven’t yet filled the left-handed part of their DH platoon. While Raul Ibanez‘s name has come up a few times and Vlad is a potential option, Johnny Damon seems to hover around these happenings.

In some combination or another, Damon either wants to rejoin the Yanks or the Yanks are interested in him. Either way, I made a lukewarm case for him back in January. As a left facing righties while playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, Damon could still show some pop in his bat, and the Yanks aren’t asking him to carry a lineup. He may fall off a cliff or he may just continue to push toward career milestones.

Damon, you see, is 277 hits away from 3000, and it seems to be on his mind. While with the Rays in 2011, he spoke about approaching the milestone and what it means to him. If he reaches 3000 hits, his would be an interesting case for the Hall of Fame as his longevity is his most compelling argument, but that’s neither here nor there. The 3000-hit plateau seems to be sustaining his career, but it could be threatening it too.

Over the past season or so, Damon has spoke about his desire to reach 3000. Now, Joel Sherman claims that desire may be impacting his game. According to Joel Sherman, “executives from three teams that had interest in Damon expressed concerns a fixation with 3,000 has diminished an attribute that greatly contributed to the perception of Damon as a winning player: patient, tough at-bats.”

Sherman goes on to analyze Damon’s swing and walk rates, but his analysis is suspect. Over at the Captain’s Blog, William took at skeptical look at Sherman’s statistical conclusions. Still, the rumblings are there. Damon may be a good teammate, but he also has his eye on personal milestones.

So with Spring Training a few days away, Damon remains jobless. Maybe the Yanks come calling. Maybe the two sides will find their relationship mutually beneficial. Damon can aim for 3000 while aiming for the right field seats. If not, the two sides will move on, and Damon, who wants to be everything for every team he’s on, will don yet another uniform in his never ending quest for baseball immortality.

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The Vlad Guerrero Option

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images))

The Yankees’ search for a part-time DH has essentially come down to three finalists: Raul Ibanez, who remains the front-runner; Johnny Damon, whose quest for 3,000 hits might be hindering his play, and Hideki Matsui, whose 2011 season looked like the end of the road. Chances are the Yankees will move on one of these players once they’ve shed A.J. Burnett and a portion of his salary. But none of that has happened yet. That leaves other suitors a chance to make a case. One has already spoken up.

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Vladimir Guerrero “has made it known to the Yankees that he wants their DH spot.” We’ve been over many possible DH candidates, but to date we haven’t discussed Guerrero. He just didn’t seem to fit, based on a surface judgment. Instead of simply accepting this, though, let’s look a bit deeper into what Vlad can bring to the team. Might he be a better DH option than the current suitors?

The first strike against Vlad appears to be his handedness. All of the prominent suitors for the Yankees’ DH role, including minor league signee Russ Branyan, hit from the left side of the plate. Given the current roster construction, a lefty does make sense for that part-time DH spot. Since Andruw Jones will take reps against left-handers, the Yanks could use someone who can handle right-handers.

Yet that obscures the issue a bit. First, some of Jones’ at-bats will be at the expense of Brett Gardner. While Gardner can hold his own against lefties, he has absolutely no pop against them. Using Jones in left adds power to the lineup, while at the same time keeping Gardner’s legs fresh. The DH spot, then, can remain open against LHP at times.

The other issue: not every lefty hits righties better than every righty. This comes at the top of the scale — Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera, both righties, have hit right-handed pitching better than anyone in the last two seasons — and the bottom. That is, just because someone hits left handed doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily good against them. We can see this when comparing the DH candidates.

In terms of overall numbers, Damon and Vlad have been the best hitters in the last two seasons, producing 109 and 108 wRC+ numbers. Ibanez trails them by a bit, producing average numbers. Matsui, on the strength of his 2010 season, actually ranks just behind Vlad and Damon, with a 107 wRC+.

When we turn to production against RHP, Matsui actually comes out ahead with a 110 wRC+. From there Ibanez, Vlad, and Damon are all close, with slightly above average numbers. That is, there’s not a huge difference among them in terms of production against right-handed pitching. That is, Vlad can hang with them, even though he bats right-handed.

In terms of age, Vlad also holds the advantage. He’s 37 this season. Ibanez is 40, and Damon and Matsui are both 38. There might not be much to this, since they’re all past their primes and could fall off a cliff at any moment. There’s also the issue of their current declines. Here’s how much each one dropped off, in terms of wRC+, from 2010 to 2011.

Guerrero: -24
Damon: even
Ibanez: -19
Matsui: -30

Of course, the dips from Matsui and Guerrero are greater, because they had far better 2010 seasons than both Damon and Ibanez. At the same time, Damon is the only one to finish with above-average numbers in 2011. This makes the situation a bit murkier.

If one thing becomes clear when breaking down the situation, it’s that Ibanez’s status as front-runner makes little sense. He’s the oldest in the group, saw a pretty steep decline from 2010 to 2011, and overall produced the worst numbers in the past two years. While Matsui’s stark decline from 2010 to 2011 might disqualify him as a serious candidate, the same could, and probably should, be said of Ibanez. It’s hard to see where the optimism comes from.

Guerrero, it appears, isn’t at all the worst candidate for the Yankees’ DH gig. He might hit right-handed, but hey, so did the guy who was originally supposed to fill the DH role in 2012. The only big red flag is that he realized a marked drop-off in 2011, though part of that involves his quality 2010 season. His case is definitely stronger than I had originally envisioned.

Chances are the Yankees won’t seriously consider Guerrero for DH, and in a way that’s a shame. Maybe he doesn’t hit left-handed, but he looks like a better option than Ibanez right now. If the Yankees are having trouble working out something with Ibanez or Damon, perhaps Vlad does become a dark horse. It’s hard to make a case that the other guys are much, if any, better.

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.

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.