Last night was the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to players eligible for the process or allow them to become free agents, and as has been the case in recent years, they used the opportunity to put a lot of players on the market. Fifty players became free agents last night, including some who were regulars for the past few years, but no one on the list can expect significant offers in the market. The best players “on the bubble,” such as Hee Seop Choi, Jason LaRue and Corey Patterson, were either offered arbitration or settled on a contract in the hours before the deadline.

The best players non-tendered yesterday include Orioles’ outfielder Eric Byrnes. He played too much last season, but has strong platoon/fourth-outfielder skills and might be a good fit for the Diamondbacks, with their lefty-heavy, defense-light outfield. Relievers Chad Bradford and Grant Balfour (a personal favorite who can’t stay healthy) top a short list of interesting pitching names, although teams looking for innings also have Ramon Ortiz, Josh Fogg and Ryan Franklin for the taking. Miguel Olivo, a strong defensive catcher who seemed to find his bat after a midseason deal to the Padres, could be a sleeper for teams like the Angels, Marlins or Rockies, all of which could use catching help.

Perhaps my favorite note from the list is that both players in the Braves/Brewers trade earlier this month are on it. Neither Danny Kolb nor Wes Obermueller were offered arbitration, making both free agents. It’s not quite Pokey Reese‘s mid-December trip through the transaction wires from a few years ago, but it’s an amusing quirk.

A non-tender process that didn’t change the market much might have left me without much to write about if not for a flood of big moves, including the surprising signing of Johnny Damon by the Yankees. I say, “surprising,” because it wasn’t 24 hours ago that I was having a conversation in which I said that Damon seemed a much better fit for Boston, and that his dalliance with the Yankees seemed designed more to up his price than actually lead to a departure.

The signing is a mixed bag. With neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox having a good Plan B, Damon and his solid bat make for a considerable swing from one team to the other, probably on the order of eight wins in 2006. The Sox will be scrambling to fill their center field hole from outside the organization, while the Yankees upgrade from Bubba Crosby to a player who is, right now, a legitimate major-league center fielder.

Despite all the attention paid to him, however, Damon is not a superstar, or arguably even a star. He was a consistent five-to-six win player in his four years with the Red Sox, a period that covered his age-28 through age-31 seasons. Durability and consistency were his strong suits, rather than any particular element of his game, and he does have fairly good speed. His peak season, 2004, featured a .304/.380/.477 line and 6.7 WARP, notable as much for how it ended–in a Red Sox championship–as for its value.

As much as anything else, Damon looks like a lesser version of the center fielder the Yankees recently became so disenchanted with. At 31, Bernie Williams hit .307/.391/.566 and posted a 6.7 WARP in the second year of his seven-year contract. He would decline in a straight line from that point, especially on defense, to become a shell of his former self at 34 and 35.

Damon has an significant speed edge on Williams, and is unlikely to decline as sharply on defense as Williams did (few players have). Neither player has a good arm; Damon is one of the few replacements for Williams the Yankees could have acquired who doesn’t provide much of an upgrade in their center field throwing. Damon, like Nomar Garciaparra, got a big boost from Fenway Park, on the order of 50 points of batting average and OBP the last three seasons. The Yankees aren’t really getting a .310/.370/.450 guy so much as they’re getting a .285/.345/.425 guy. It’s the difference between a star and a solution, or millions of dollars and a couple of wins a year.

Like many free-agent contracts, the problem with this one isn’t the immediate future. Damon is enough of an upgrade on the available options to help the Yankees in 2006. As he declines, however, he will present the dual problem of hurting the team in center while not hitting enough to be a viable option on an outfield corner. I don’t see where a 34-year-old Johnny Damon is going to return enough value to be worth $13 million, meaning he’ll be just another aging Yankee in decline at the back end of this deal.

The Red Sox could actually end up huge winners here. There’s a rumor making the rounds that they’re trying to deal Matt Clement to the Mariners for Jeremy Reed. If they can do that, they will have replaced Damon with, essentially, a Damon Starter Kit, complete with functional arm and 25-year-old legs, and saved $20 million a year in the process. The Sox may feel they don’t have the rotation depth to make a deal like this, but the available pool of pitchers is deeper than the available pool of center fielders, and the cost savings could go a long way come midseason. If they get Reed, they’ll never miss Damon.

The Damon deal wasn’t the worst signing of an outfielder with an 11-letter name yesterday, though, The Cubs–and you just knew it was going to be the Cubs–inked Jacque Jones to a three-year deal to play right field. Jones, 31, is a completely inadequate corner outfielder with the bat who doesn’t make up for that by being a plus defender. Since a two-year peak at 27 and 28 (.300 with power), Jones has settled in as a .250 hitter who walks once or twice a week and pops an extra-base hit about that often. He doesn’t have very good speed (13 steals a year the last three years, six triples total, double-digit GIDPs from the left side) and while his range is good, his arm is poor.

Jones is basically a fourth outfielder, about as good a player as Michael Tucker or Ricky Ledee or someone like that. His 2002-03 peak, and the Twins’ lack of better players, branded him as something more, but he’ll be a disappointment for the Cubs, who continue to have an organizational blind spot when it comes to on-base percentage.

While on the topic of outfielders with 11-letter names…the Dodgers continued to assemble the 2000 AL All-Star team by adding Kenny Lofton to play center field. Lofton had a big year with the Phillies in ’05, hitting .335/.392/.420 and going 22-for-25 stealing bases, although he did miss some time with nagging injuries. Despite the perception that he’s not a good defender any longer–one I certainly share–Clay Davenport has him as no worse than average in every season since 2002. At worst, he’s probably going to put up a .340 OBP and a 75% stolen-base percentage, and he fills a need for the team. This is the antithesis of the Garciaparra deal: Lofton has played well of late, fills a need and isn’t being asked to do more than he’s capable of doing.

The Dodgers, who have pitching and infielders in their system, are going to have to produce an outfielder at some point. It’s been some time since they’ve developed one. For 2006, however, they’ve picked up a decent patch. Adding Lofton, Garciaparra, Bill Mueller gives them considerable exposure on the health side, but does mean that they could have a strong OBP core to go with the power of Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew. It’s just December, but right now I’d pick them to win a weak NL West.

Their main rivals in the West, the Padres, made a significant move yesterday, jettisoning some payroll in the form of Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka in exchange for Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez and Terrmel Sledge. It’s an interesting, hard-to-analyze deal, because it consists of so many unknown quantities. Is Eaton healthy, and will he improve his command to be the power/groundball guy he has been so close to becoming at times? Is Gonzalez a Wally Joyner type at first base, a Gold Glove defender who will also provide above-average offense, or just a defensive replacement in the Mike Squires/Doug Mientkiewicz mold? Can Sledge provide enough doubles pop to hold a corner-outfield job, something he struggled to do with the Nationals? Is Otsuka’s decline in ’05 just one of those things, or the first step in the Kazuhiro Sasaki path to irrelevance? What exactly is Chris Young, whose ERA moved in inverse proportion to his strikeout rate last season?

Eaton’s contract demands–he was looking for a three-year deal at around $9 million per season–made it easy for the Padres to let him go. The difference in the two parks may make it hard to evaluate this trade in the short term, as the surface stats of Eaton and Young will be affected in dramatic ways by the switch. It’s the development of Gonzalez, still just 24, that will make the difference in the long term. Right now, the Padres seem to have gotten cost savings and nearly all the upside in the deal.

I’m off to New York for the holidays. Catch me on MLB Radio‘s “Fantasy 411” tomorrow afternoon, live from their Chelsea studios, assuming I can get into Manhattan.

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