Johnny Damon - exit stage left...
As everyone now knows, Johnny Damon is going to New York. At first glance, this helps the Yankees and hurts the Red Sox. And, to a certain extent, that's true. One of the things that we used to talk about during certain electrical engineering classes was that we had electrons, and we had "holes." As an electron moved down the wire in one direction, a hole moved in the other direction. I think that the correct way to characterize this move is that a hole just moved from New York to Boston. The Yankees had a hole in center field - now the Red Sox have a hole in center field.
The reaction in Boston has been predictable. The Boston media is not world-renowned for its calm deliberation and cerebral analysis. From the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy ("now your Boston Red Sox have no center fielder, no shortstop, and no first baseman to go along with no Theo Epstein and no clue") to WEEI's Big Show ("this looks like a 3rd-place team right now") the "analysis" has been instantaneous and universally negative.
I'm not even slightly interested in jumping on that particular bandwagon.
I'm reminded of the firestorm that took place when Mo Vaughn signed for too much money with the Anaheim Angels in 1998. For a couple of reasons. One, the reaction was very similar. Two, the contract that the player signed was for too much money, more money than made sense for the Red Sox to match. And despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the 1999 Red Sox were actually two games better in the regular season, and one series better in the post-season.
I don't say that that's going to be the case here. But it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Damon has been, at times, a very good player, and he was excellent in 2004. But he's not a superstar. He's not the greatest lead-off hitter in baseball history, not even if baseball history just extends to 2005. If the Yankees put him at the top of the order, bumping down Jeter, who loses ~18 plate appearances, bumping down Rodriguez, who loses about ~18 plate appearances, bumping down Sheffield, who loses ~18 plate appearances, that's not a great thing for the Yankees. Damon's OBP last year (.366) was good, but not great. It wasn't as good as Jeter's (.389) or Sheffield's (.379) or within shouting distance of Rodriguez' (.421). It was an improvement over Bernie Williams or Tony Womack or Bubba Crosby, but part of the benefit to upgrading that lineup spot is lost by moving it to the top and losing plate appearances for the better hitters. As to the defense, he's an upgrade, but not what he once was, and as bad as Williams' arm is, I'm not certain that Damon's is any better.
And he's benefited enormously from Fenway Park. Over the last 4 years, he's hit .310/.383/.442/.825 at home, and only .281/.341/.440/.782 on the road. If the Yankees have just given $52 million dollars for a weak-armed, aging, declining range center fielder and lead-off man who's going to put up a .341 OBP and hit 15 HR, that's not going to bother me one little bit.
For a little context, there have been 197 Major League players with 800+ road at-bats over the last 4 years, the length of Damon's stay in Boston. Out of that group,
- Damon's road OBP is .342, 96th best. Middle of the pack.
- Damon's road SLG is .449, 94th best. Middle of the pack.
- Damon's road OPS is .782, 97th best. Middle of the pack.
And those were his age 28-31 seasons. Actuarially speaking, the next four are far more likely to be worse then just as good, never mind better. If we look at his career, we see that his OBP is .040 points higher at Fenway Park than it is everywhere else. That difference is the difference between a very good lead-off hitter (.383 OBP) and just another guy (.344 OBP).
I will say this, unequivocally: there is no way on God's green earth that Johnny Damon is a $13 million dollar a year player in ANY of the next 4 years.
That said, the question remains - was it the right thing for the Red Sox not to match that offer? Yes, someone' going to be overpaying him (mildly next year, and progressively worse for the life of the contract.) But the Red Sox do not, at the moment, have a replacement. In that sense, this is a loss for the Red Sox. They'd be better prepared right now for the 2006 season than they are, had Damon signed with Boston instead of New York. And New York would be less prepared.
So where do they go now? David Murphy has shown signs of getting it, but he was only in AA this year, and jumping to Fenway is probably not the right next step for him. Trot Nixon can't play it (and it wouldn't help much if he could, because then they'd need a right-fielder.) Gabe Kapler, coming off Achilles surgery, isn't going to be ready, and really isn't good enough even if he were. I think Adam Stern's still in the system, and he's a conceivable stopgap for a year. In all likelihood, they're going to have to make a move to add a center fielder.
Now, they've got some pitching that they could probably get away with moving (Wells/Clement/Arroyo) to try to pick up a Jeremy Reed or a Coco Crisp, or even a Dave Roberts. The fact is, that with Renteria gone and Loretta here, they can probably put together a 1-2 from Loretta/Graffanino/Youkilis that will be on base as much as, if not more than, Damon/Renteria were on base in 2005. They've got enough pieces, assuming that Lowell shows any kind of bounce back, that they offense will probably not suffer greatly. I don't expect them to score 910 runs again, but I sure don't expect them to allow 805, either. Frankly, if Manny's back, and Varitek, Loretta, Nixon, Ortiz and Ramirez are healthy, this team's still going to score runs, no matter who's in center field. So signing a great glove, weak-bat CF, batting him 9th and letting him track down balls in the OF, wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.
Ideally, they'd have been able to sign Damon for 1-2 years and continue to develop Murphy (and Moss) and Ellsbury behind them. That wasn't ever going to happen. Given that, the choice was between vastly overpaying Damon (they were willing to overpay him, as he isn't going to be worth $40 million over the next four years, either) or going to plan 'B.' So they're going to have to go to plan 'B.' We'll have to wait until we see what it is to evaluate it, but the level of panic in Red Sox nation today was completely unjustified. And while it may benefit the Yankees to have signed Damon for 2006, I'd put money on it that the Red Sox, and Red Sox fans, will be glad that it's George Steinbrenner signing those Damon checks in 2008-2009 rather than John Henry...
Further commentary from:
- The Baseball Crank - ("I can't wait for the day when he and Bernie are in the outfield at once. Opposing teams won't even need third base coaches anymore.")
- A Large Regular - ("This is a very good move by the Yankees. Damon makes them much better both offensively and defensively." - I [obviously] disagree...)
- David Pinto - ("this is a positive for the Yankees, if for no other reason than the Red Sox need to find a new center fielder...")
- The House That Dewey Built - ("thank the Good Lord we didn’t sign this deal. Warning signs for Damon abound...")
- Soxblog - ("Bill James once wrote that a player’s career is like a watermelon. You’ve got the skin, the rind, and the tasty pink part. As a franchise, you want to make sure you get a given player’s tasty pink part and as little of the rind and skin as possible.
That’s what the Red Sox did with Damon.")