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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. 
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