By the Deki-ade: Left field strengths

Throughout the latter half of the 1990s, the Yankees won without a true left field solution. They used Tim Raines and Chad Curtis, Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer to try to fill the hole. It was not until 2003 with the arrival of Hideki Matsui that the Yankees had a true left field solution.

Now, as the Aughts came to a close, the Yankees’ left field position is again up for grabs. Johnny Damon is gone, and someone will step in to fill the hole. That is a concern for other posts. Today, as we continue our Yankees By the Decade retrospective, we come to toast the left fielders. The table below is those who made at least 10 appearances in left from 2000-2009.

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By virtue of playing time alone, Hideki Matsui is the left fielder of the decade. For a few years from 2003-2007, before his knees gave out, Matsui brought stability to the spot and man, did he hit. Over his 2080 left field at-bats, he hit .291/.371/.475 with 82 home runs and 357 RBIs.

Even with this gaudy counting stats, I’m a little hesitant to flat-out proclaim Matsui the best of the decade. The simple truth is that Matsui’s fielding in left was, for five years, atrocious. He never once put up a UZR better than -1.6, and his combined left field UZR for his time in the Bronx was -57.8. Without Matsui’s big bat, the Yanks would have been in deep trouble in left.

For the 2000s, though, the trend for the Yanks in left focused around a big bat with less emphasis on fielding. Johnny Damon, the successor to Matsui in left, put up nearly identical numbers to Matsui. He hit .301/.372/.484 and sported a better OPS out of left than Matsui did. For the first two seasons, Damon put up positive UZR totals in left, but in 2009, that figure dipped to -9.2. It was ugly for sure.

Before these two stalwarts of the late 2000s, the Yankees tried everyone. The Rondell White era was a misguided attempt to plug a hole left by the end of the Paul O’Neill era. Never able to stay healthy, White signed a multi-year deal with the Yanks, put up some atrocious numbers and was traded for Bubba Trammell. The two-year, $10-million deal White signed was one of the worst of the early 00s.

As the early years of the decade wore on, others came and went. The Yankees tried to put Chuck Knoblauch in the left field spot in 2001 after he couldn’t throw from second to first. They tried Melky Cabrera when Matsui went down with an injury in 2006. They even gave Ruben Sierra 51 at bats in the field during the mid-decade years.

Now, though, the era of Matsui and Damon is over. The Yanks’ DH went west, and the Yanks’ incumbent left field is trying to find some team willing to overpay him in both years and dollars. Maybe Damon will return; maybe Brett Gardner will fill the void. For the Yanks, that left field hole is nothing new, and as the decade ends, we will be Matsui, the man who received just 33 percent of all Yankee LF at-bats, as the position’s best.

Francesa: Mets on verge of signing Bay

According to WFAN’s Mike Francesa, the Mets are going to announce the signing of Jason Bay after the slugger takes his physical this weekend. Bay has been sitting on the Mets’ offer for weeks, hoping for a better one from Seattle. Why then does this matter for the Yankees? With Bay nearly on board in Queens, the Mets are no longer an option for Johnny Damon, and the free agent’s choices are slowly dwindling. My money is still on a Bronx return for Johnny but on the Yanks’ terms.

Report: Everyone too expensive for Yanks’ LF hole

As the Yankees have seemingly wrapped up their major off-season shopping list — Andy Pettitte, an outfielder, a DH and another starter — the team has found itself somewhat down an outfielder. Although content to stick Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner in center field to start the 2009 season, baseball commentators and fans in New York expect the team to find someone better to fill the left field spot this year. Maybe it’s because Johnny Damon was so good offensively in left; maybe it’s because a few big-name outfielder remain. Either way, left field looms.

Except a funny thing happened on the way to Spring Training: Everyone is too expensive for the Yanks in left. We know that the team and Johnny Damon probably could have come to terms on a two-year deal at an annual salary of less than $10 million, but Damon wanted more. We heard the Yanks were interested in Mark DeRosa, but he has nearly officially agreed to a two-year deal believed to be worth around $12million with the Giants that is too expensive for the Yanks.

Beyond Damon and DeRosa, a few other names have surfaced. The Yanks could look at Jermaine Dye, but Jon Heyman warns us that the team is not interested. He too is probably too expensive. Even Xavier Nady, a free agent recovering from his second Tommy John Surgery, is too expensive for the Yanks, according to Bryan Hoch. On the open market, Matt Holliday and, to a much lesser extent, Jason Bay loom large in left, but the Yanks have shown no interest at all in landing these two players. Plus, if Nady, Dye, Damon and DeRosa are too expensive, Holliday and Bay are off the charts.

So what’s going on here? Are the Yankees really looking to reign in their free-spending ways? Are they coming off a World Series win, their highest-rated season on the YES Network, with a tighter wallet? For now — and I stress the “for now” aspect of it — that seems to be the case. But why?

Simply put, for the Yankees, left field isn’t a priority. Fans of the Bombers may want to see multi-millionaire future Hall of Famers at every position. They may want to see the Yanks nab the best guys on the open market year after the year, but that’s now how Brian Cashman acts. He’s content to have Hall of Famers at third, short and catcher. He’s happy with his All Star first baseman and center fielder, his on-base machine DH, his slugging second baseman, his fun-loving, power-hitting right fielder. With those pieces in place and a pitching staff, one through five, that matches up on paper with the best of them, the Yankees do not need to spend on a left fielder.

That doesn’t, however, mean that they won’t get involved with the right player when the prices come down. Chris at iYankees has continually professed that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Yanks were working to sign Holliday quietly. I don’t think the team will go that far. I do, however, expect them to keep Scott Boras’ number on speed dial. As Johnny Damon finds that his services aren’t needed elsewhere, as left field spots around the league fill up, the Yanks will grab the last man standing for a deal on their terms.

In the end, if they have to go to war with Brett Gardner and Jamie Hoffmann, they can. But when someone else at the right price is playing left field in April, I certainly won’t be surprised.

Christmas Eve rumors: Yanks talking to Reed Johnson

The baseball world slows down a bit on Christmas Eve as executives, agents and players settle in for some quality time with their families. The Yankees though are still working on their holiday shopping. As Joel Sherman reported this afternoon, the Yankees are “talking regularly” with Reed Johnson and his representatives. Johnson, 33, would be a left field target for the Yanks, and he would give them some flexibility as he is a right-handed batter who can play all three outfield positions. He doesn’t, however, hit too well. He has a career line of .282/.344/.411 with a 95 OPS+ and has had an OPS+ above 100 just twice in seven years and not at all since 2006. He played just 65 games last year and has averaged 84 games per season over the last three years while hitting just .269/.333/.383. Brett Gardner and Jamie Hoffmann can probably do that.