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January 29, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Damon's Next Dash?

by Jay Jaffe

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Even Yogi Berra would agree: it's over. For any Yankees fan clinging to a shred of hope that the team would somehow come to its senses and find a way to fit Johnny Damon back into their budget, Thursday's announcement of Randy Winn's signing to a one-year, $2-million deal dashed those hopes. It's not that the Yankees and Damon didn't try to find some middle ground; they clearly did, continuing to pump life into the story long after most observers had written the possibility off, or at least grown tired of the story. Now, the question is which options remain for Damon?

The story so far: Capping his four-year, $52-million deal with a 24-homer, .282/.365/.489 regular season and a World Series-turning base-running gambit, the 36-year-old Damon entered the free-agent market with a good bit of momentum, though his age positioned him well behind both Matt Holliday and Jason Bay among left fielders. It also quite clearly put him below fellow Scott Boras client Holliday on the agent's docket, the type of conflict of interest that tends to go unacknowledged within the industry.

Boras sought another long-term deal for Damon, or at least a longer-term deal than what the Yankees were comfortable with, given their aging core and (yes) budgetary constraints. Even before the World Series ended, SI.com's Jon Heyman-a writer often linked to Boras-related rumors, and not in a terribly flattering way-reported that the upper bounds of the Yanks' interest appeared to be two years and $16 million, nearly a 40-percent pay cut on an average annual value basis. About six weeks later, the New York Times' Tyler Kepner reported that both Damon and an anonymous Yankees official confirmed that the team had offered Damon two years and $14 million, and that he had countered with two years and $20 million. That report surfaced in the context of the Yankees' Dec. 18 signing of Nick Johnson to a one-year, $5.5-million deal to be their primary designated hitter, a move which, even then, was read as sealing Damon's exit.

Not that the tea leaves hadn't already foretold such a story. Immediately after the World Series, Bobby Abreu, who served as last winter's cautionary tale regarding mid-market corner outfielders previously under pinstriped control, re-upped with the Angels for two years and $19 million, a substantial raise on his $5-million (plus incentives) deal for 2009, but something which provided a direct point of comparison for similarly aged (Abreu is four months younger), similarly productive (.290+ EqAs for both over the last two years) corner outfielders with defensive concerns.

Less than a month later, the Yankees declined to offer arbitration to Damon, a Type-A free agent, not a surprising decision given the industry trend, but also not an indication of hot and heavy interest. A week after that, they traded for Curtis Granderson, the Tigers' going-on-29-year-old center fielder, even further reducing Damon's leverage by pitting him directly against fellow free agent/World Series hero Hideki Matsui in a lowest-bidder auction to be the team's nominal DH, thus giving them the option of maintaining last year's tandem of Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera in one of the outfield slots (center or left). With Johnson's signing and then the re-acquisition of Javier Vazquez (costing them Cabrera, not to mention $11.5 million towards their 2010 payroll), Damon's chances of returning appeared to be positioned between slim and none in the team photo.

Meanwhile, Damon's potential suitors beyond the Bronx continued to dwindle. Cabrera's trade to Atlanta and Matsui's mid-December flight to the Angels appeared to close off those choices, as did the trades for Milton Bradley (Mariners) and Juan Pierre (White Sox), and the signings of Mike Cameron (Red Sox), Mark DeRosa (Giants), Bay (Mets), Holliday (Cardinals), and Vlad Guerrero (Rangers). Not that Damon was ever linked with some of those teams or an exact fit for their needs, but they were the ones with starting left field or DH roles in play and the resources to fill them from outside the organization.

As those chairs dwindled, both the mainstream media and the blogosphere have continued to treat a Damon return to the Yankees as an open possibility, even though general manager Brian Cashman suggested he only had about $2 million to sign another outfielder. And it was with good cause, given that over the weekend, reports of the two sides talking continued to surface. Obviously, those conversations weren't fruitful, and the Yanks ultimately decided to shift to a Winn-now mode (sorry).

Where does that leave Damon? Armed with the bleeding-edge 2010 PECOTA weighted mean projections (which somehow omitted him and other free agents such as Orlando Hudson; we'll fix that soon) here are a half-dozen places he still might fit, though even at a reduced price. Even for Abreu money at $5 million per year, say, he may be too rich for some of these teams' blood, and other obstacles may lie in his path. For reference, Damon's park-neutral projection calls for him to hit .274/.353/.425 with 17 homers and 17 steals in 587 plate appearances, not to mention a +3 FRAA in left field (our system has been considerably more optimistic about his defense than other systems), which would be all good for a .271 EqA and 2.4 WARP, half of what he was worth last year. PECOTA simply doesn't love ballplayers over the age of 35.

Rays: With Carl Crawford in left field, B.J. Upton in center, and Damon possessing a chicken wing of a throwing arm and thus unsuited for right, the Rays don't appear to have an everyday spot in the outfield for Damon. Nonetheless, they're talking to him about becoming their primary DH. The problem is that the Rays have $9 million already committed to Pat Burrell, whom they've been trying to unload all winter. Pat the Possibly Broken Bat hit a miserable .221/.315/.367 last year (.246 EqA) due to a neck strain and a bulging disk, and the combination of those injury concerns, his lack of versatility, and his salary doesn't exactly have suitors lining up around the block. Despite a respectable .254/.363/.475 career line, PECOTA isn't very optimistic about a rebound for the 33-year-old: a .235/.347/.419/.262 EqA. If the Rays can find a way to ditch him, this is probably Damon's most appealing option, as it affords him a chance to haunt both the Yankees and Red Sox, not to mention getting plenty of at-bats in a pair of ballparks where he's hit particularly well.

A's: Prior to their signing of Ben Sheets, it was clear that the A's had money to spend, possibly because they were in danger of being questioned by the Players Association regarding their use of revenue-sharing money, ā la the Marlins. Even after signing Sheets, the A's were rumored to be discussing a reunion with Damon, who spent 2001 as the starting center fielder on their wild card-winning squad. Exactly how he'd fit into the picture is unclear. The A's have DH-types Jack Cust (projected .234/.372/.459/.285 EqA) and Jake Fox (.248/.316/.450/.258 EqA) already on hand and, back in December, they signed Coco Crisp (.263/.342/.404/.260 EqA) to a one-year, $5.25-million deal to be their center fielder, thus pushing Rajai Davis (.281/.349/.404/.267 EqA, coming off a nice little breakout season) over to left. General manager Billy Beane has indicated that infield depth is his priority, and he's not optimistic he can fit Damon into his current plans, though he hasn't ruled it out entirely.

Mariners: Between the free-agent signing of Chone Figgins and the trades for Bradley and Cliff Lee, the Mariners have probably done more to improve their 2010 chances than any team. Last year's left field situation was a veritable Vortex of Suck, with Wladimir Balentien, Endy Chavez, Michael Saunders et al hitting a combined .219/.276/.333, the worst showing at any outfield position in the majors in terms of REqA (Raw Equivalent Average). Bradley figures to see the bulk of his time at DH since, as Joe Sheehan famously remarked, "Bradley can only do any two of these three things at once: hit, play the field, stay healthy." PECOTA is quite optimistic about a rebound, marking him down for a .277/.393/.463/.295 EqA. It's less optimistic about the idea of handing left field over to the 23-year-old Saunders, the team's second-best prospect, projecting a .249/.320/395/.247 EqA. Damon would obviously represent a significant upgrade, and while there's been relatively little noise about this possibility, GM Jack Zduriencik is one of the sharper tools in the shed.

Giants: Elsewhere in that shed, Brian Sabean continues to pound screws into bricks with a garden rake. Given an offense that finished last in the majors with a .244 EqA, Sabean has thrown about $35 million in 2010-2011 commitments at DeRosa, Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez, Bengie Molina, and Juan Uribe, none of whom are strong steps in the direction of boosting that. Huff and Molina were below .260 last year, Uribe's at .242 for his career, and both DeRosa and Sanchez are coming off injuries that led to unproductive post-trade stints; the latter isn't even likely to be available for opening day, given his recent shoulder surgery. Projected for a .267/.346/.428/.269 EqA performance, DeRosa's production appears to be light for a corner outfielder. He'd make far more sense at second or third base, with a concomitant shift of Pablo Sandoval to first base to do away with Huff's similarly sub-par production (.274/.340/.436/.268 EqA) and dodgy defense. Sabean ruled out Damon last month, and while it happened at the same media session in which he dismissed a return engagement from Molina, it's clear that Damon is just too fancy for the GM's taste.

Braves: Left fielder Garret Anderson's dying bat made him a Replacement-Level Killer, but he's departed as a free agent. Right now, the Braves' current outfield alignment appears to feature a platoon between Cabrera (.270/.343/.404/.269 EqA) and Matt Diaz (.285/.344/.425/.275 EqA) in left, Nate McLouth in center, and Jason Heyward, considered by many to be the game's top position prospect, in right. As the Yankees have moved away from Damon, there's been a lot of heat about the possibility of the Braves snagging him, but their interest appears to be on the wane due to concerns about his defense and price tag.

Tigers: Detroit's DHs hit just .245/.325/.379, bad enough to qualify for the Replacement-Level Killers. Marcus Thames and Huff, who combined for about half the team's plate appearances in that role, are gone via free agency. The team's current plans appear to involve Ryan Raburn (.262/.341/.458/.269 EqA) and Carlos Guillen (.273/.356/.423/.266 EqA) in the mix for at-bats in left field, with the latter also vying with Magglio Ordoņez (a surprisingly robust .303/.370/.468/.283 EqA; I'll take the under, thanks) for at-bats at DH. While those projections aren't awful, the team doesn't have an obvious leadoff hitter unless they push either Austin Jackson or Scott Sizemore, a pair of rookies with nary a big-league at-bat between them, into the role; Damon's experience as a top-of-the-lineup force would obviously help. Alas, the Tigers have major payroll issues, which include $44 million of guaranteed money for Guillen and Ordoņez over the next two years, and more if the latter's vesting option kicks in.

All of these teams appear to be contenders according to our first-blush PECOTA projections, and all could probably use Damon to upgrade their chances at the postseason. Yet all have obstacles in their paths to signing Damon due to positional logjams, significant guaranteed salary commitments, or more generalized payroll concerns. Of these half-dozen teams, the Mariners and Braves seem to have the most flexibility, in that adding Damon wouldn't put an established full-time player out of a job. If I had to put my nickel down, it would be on either of those two, with a slight edge for Seattle due to the ability to DH him occasionally. But their interest in him is no given, and I suspect whoever lands him will have to surprise us with another move in order to do so.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ScottyB

Wow! Figgins, Ichiro, Damon (in some order) at the top of a lineup would be really fun to watch.

Jan 29, 2010 10:05 AM
rating: 2
 
russadams

"Elsewhere in that shed, Brian Sabean continues to pound screws into bricks with a garden rake."

I shouldn't have read this article at work. People are wondering why I just fell out of my chair.

Jan 29, 2010 10:21 AM
rating: 11
 
Greg Ioannou

People here at my office were looking at me, too, though I managed to stay in my chair. What a great line!

Jan 29, 2010 10:46 AM
rating: 0
 
Worthing

This is the funniest line to appear at BP in years, and there have been many to choose from.

Jan 29, 2010 12:26 PM
rating: 0
 
clachan

I think "pounding screws into garden rakes with a brick" would have been funny enough. I'm glad I didn't read this at work - I would have been totally busted

Hilarious!

Jan 29, 2010 16:58 PM
rating: 1
 
LovetheGame

"GM Jack Zduriencik is one of the sharper tools in the shed." "Elsewhere in that shed, Brian Sabean continues to pound screws into bricks with a garden rake."

Fortunately I'm a Mariner's fan, but my heart medication doesn't cover stuff like this. I almost died laughing. That comparison was worth the price of this year's subscription.

Jan 29, 2010 23:13 PM
rating: 0
 
delajeff

I know they don't count as contenders, but what about the Reds, who have no obvious starter in left, and can withstand Damon's poor defense because of the smaller field? It would be good for Damon too, because he could keep his power numbers up.

Jan 29, 2010 11:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Lou Doench

I second this proposal. Plus Damon is one of the few players that Dusty might leadoff with who would actually be qualified.

Jan 29, 2010 15:19 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The Reds probably deserve some consideration here, because at least our initial projections show them around .500 in a less than dominating division.

Right now their outfield appears to have Chris Dickerson (.263 proj EqA) or Wladimir Balantien (.260) as the primary candidates in left, and Damon obviously trumps that, and he's a better leadoff hitter than Willy Taveras (.245), so yes, he makes some sense. ESPN's Jerry Crasnick has reported that Boras is trying to interest them.

The Blue Jays are another team that has bounced the idea off the wall, which would give them an outfield of Damon, Vernon Wells, and then Travis Snider in right instead of left, with Adam Lind DHing. That could be an ugly outfield, defensively speaking, but they'd put runs on the board.

Jan 29, 2010 15:53 PM
 
sbrousc

If the Tigers really want to contend, there has to be a creative solution that brings Damon to Detroit without blowing up the payroll. A 1-year deal at a $2M with an easily achievable vesting player option at $8 - $10M would hedge against Maggs vesting his option and reduce the risks of Carlos Guillen missing significant time, Austin Jackson pulling a Cameron Maybin '09, or finding out what happens when you give Ryan Raburn or Clete Thomas 400 PA.

Jan 29, 2010 12:03 PM
rating: 0
 
cdmyers

Yes! Plus Damon/Guillen splitting LF and DH would mean a much lower chance of Maglio picking up DH PAs and thus vesting his contract. That alone has got to add a million or two in expected value of the signing for the Tigers.

Jan 29, 2010 12:19 PM
rating: 0
 
JasonC23
(97)

There's no chance the White Sox sign him, yet I hold out hope.

Jan 29, 2010 13:36 PM
rating: 2
 
anderson721

I swear, given the level of frustration Mets fans are voicing with Omar, they should give him a First baseman's glove and sign him. How bad could he be defensively?

Jan 29, 2010 14:24 PM
rating: 2
 
Benjamin Harris

Could Bay play first? I have no idea, but he can't play left.

Jan 29, 2010 17:59 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Silly question, but aren't there 2010 PECOTA projections for Damon and Hudson in the Annual? There are still player comments about them, right?

Jan 29, 2010 18:20 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Oh, they're in the book, and PECOTAs exist for them. For some reason, they weren't in the first version of the spreadsheet - in fact right now it appears to me only a fraction of the players PECOTA'd for the book are in the sheet. We'll get that ironed out very soon.

Jan 29, 2010 18:57 PM
 
Brian Cartwright

It was said that the PECOTA spreadsheet consisted of players expected to play in MLB in 2010, so it appears to be based on each team's depth chart. Therefor, players not on any team's depth chart (not expected to play in MLB or currently unsigned) where not included in the report.

Jan 30, 2010 02:49 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

.. which might also imply that on the spreadsheet, there aren't PECOTA projections for rookies who aren't on the depth chart but conceivably could be on the tema at midseason.

Jan 30, 2010 14:06 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

We. PECOTA'd. Everyone. They're just not all in the released sheets yet.

I'll leave it to somebody else to give out the actual number, but I will say that in the internals I saw back in early January when we vetted these (and yes, there was considerable vetting by our team prior to their going in the book; the current issues involve converting weighted means to depth charts and projected standings), I was staggered to see how many we ran - far more than are in the book, to say the least. I'm skeptical you'll see cards made of the 19-year-old A-ballers with EqERAs of 9.50, but the WM projections exist.

Jan 30, 2010 15:46 PM
 
Justice

Of the remaining teams who have been listed as a possible destination for Johnny Damon, the White Sox are the best fit. The Sox need a DH; the Sox need another left handed hitter in the lineup; the Sox want speed and the Sox could use a legitimate #2 hitter behind Juan Pierre. Damon seems to fit all of these needs, doesn't he?

Imagine this starting lineup:

Pierre LF
Damon DH
G. Beckham 2B
Quentin RF
Konerko 1B
Pierzinski C
A. Rios CF
Teahan 3B
A. Ramirez SS

That lineup presents a good balance of speed, power, righty-lefty balance and OBP. If the Damon market completely collapses, I can't imagine that the Sox won't make some type of offer to Damon.

Jan 31, 2010 21:37 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

How does having Pierre, Pierzynski, Rios, and Ramirez represent power and OBP?

Feb 01, 2010 03:59 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Never mind, I get it.. the other slots represent power and OBP and those four are the righty/lefty balance.

Feb 01, 2010 04:00 AM
rating: 0
 
Brian Cartwright

How about the Rangers? They probably already have the best starting 9 in the AL West, with the mlb.com depth chart showing Borbon in CF and Josh Hamilton in LF. By signing Damon they could put Hamilton back in CF, possibly pick up 3 WAR in Damon over Borbon, in a bid to clinch a division title.

Feb 01, 2010 07:48 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

It might be worth it, but the Rangers seem pretty attached to Borbon as their CF/leadoff hitter, and with the impending sale I doubt they're in a position to make a move on Damon.

Feb 01, 2010 09:05 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Wouldn't it be ironic if ex-Red Sox, ex-Yankee Damon went to the Mets and the Mets somehow got their act together to meet and beat the Yankees in the World Series?

Feb 01, 2010 08:56 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Replace "ironic" with "impossible" and I'm with you all the way.

Feb 01, 2010 09:06 AM
 
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