Why Damon is still available
Age, position and lack of defense may be hurting market for Johnny Damon
Damon batted .282 with a .365 on-base percentage for New York in 2009
His agent, Scott Boras, says that Damon's performance 'speaks for itself'
If we were to create a "no-tool player" -- a Frankenstein's monster crudely stitched together using only the worst individual skills possessed by active major leaguers -- we might give him the foot speed of one of the senior Molina brothers. We might give him the glove of Adam Dunn. We might give him the power of Luis Castillo, and the ability to hit for average of Jack Cust. (We could name this dreadful player, my colleague Joe Posnanski would probably tell you, "Yuniesky Betancourt.")
Of this, though, there is little doubt: We would bestow upon this unfortunate creature the throwing arm of Johnny Damon. Damon's throwing motion has always been an ungainly thing, its product often unable to reach a cutoff man without a hop. Now Damon is 36 years old, and even though the Yankees two years ago shifted him to left field from center, his arm has become a genuine liability. Opposing third base coaches now risk shredding their rotator cuffs, so enthusiastically do they windmill home runners from second on even sharply-hit singles to Damon. In an SI poll of 380 big leaguers published last July, 54 percent of respondents independently named Damon as possessing the "worst arm" of any outfielder -- a remarkable consensus, when you think about it. Defensive metrics confirm what both we and those players already know anecdotally. According to the websitefangraphs.com, Damon's "arm rating," which essentially measures how well an outfielder hinders the advancement of base runners with his throws alone, was the lowest among left fielders in 2009.
Damon has been a free agent for more than two months, and during that time he and his agent, Scott Boras, have discovered how the free-agent market treats formerly highly paid ($13 million a year for his four seasons as a Yankee, in Damon's case), defensively flawed 36-year-olds. The answer is: not kindly.
Boras, when reached by SI.com on Monday, deemed it to be "a little bit premature" to discuss a possible result for Damon. "We're moving through the marketplace," Boras said. "I'll probably know more as the week goes on... I'd say his performance speaks for itself. It's hard to find many left fielders who hit 24 home runs and score 107 runs from the top of the lineup."
Yet it isn't Damon's offense that has teams wary of him. In this recently begun era of financial restraint and advanced defensive statistics, baseball's general managers like to bolster their rosters with strong fielders (see the Red Sox' signings of defensive wizards Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron; see almost every non-pitching acquisition Jack Zduriencik has made in his 15 months as the Mariners' GM), not only because fielding represents a newly focused-upon way to win, but also because the salaries commanded by top defensive players have yet to catch up with those of sluggers or staff aces.
Two other factors are playing a role in the lack of demand for Damon's services, points out one general manager who does not plan to bid for him. One is that Damon turned 36 in November, and might be on the cusp of a precipitous decline. "I think there's a greater awareness in the game of age," the GM said. "It's like a hot potato thing with an older player. There's a fear that you'll be left holding an older player at the wrong time." The second is that Damon hit the market during a winter in which there is a glut of comparable players from which clubs can choose. "In every free-agent market there will be some soft underbelly," he said. "The underbelly is probably in corner-type players this year. Russell Branyan's still out there, Jermaine Dye is still out there. Damon is not the only guy that is getting overlooked, but he's a guy that was playing for the Yankees in New York."
Damon and Boras had reportedly been seeking a two-year, $20 million deal, but baseball's 30 clubs have responded to that request with a deafening silence. The Yankees offered two years and $14 million, which Damon declined. SI.com's Jon Heyman this past weekend reported that the Yankees made a recent termed offer -- something like one year for $5 million. Damon, for his part, on Saturday text-messaged the Newark Star-Ledger's Marc Carig that he "should have a team in a week."
That team might or might not be the Yankees. In the long run, it might be beneficial to Damon if it is not, even if it means he won't be adding much to the $100 million he has earned so far in his career. Despite the potato gun he has attached to his left shoulder, there are many things that Damon still does quite well; at least three of them, in the five-tool rubric. While his range in left field is slightly below average, though not abhorrent, he remains a savvy and speedy base runner, as evidenced by the 12 bases he stole in 2009 without being caught, and underscored by the two bases he swiped on a single Brad Lidge pitch in Game 4 of the World Series, a sequence that still haunts the dreams of Phillies fans.
He still hits for average -- .282 last season, to go with a .365 on-base-percentage -- and he can still pull the ball out of the park fairly regularly, a career-high 24 times in '09. In fact, of the top 50 finishers in OPS from last season, only two are currently available on the open market: Damon and Branyan, the former Mariner who doesn't have nearly Damon's track record. Damon's detractors argue that his '09 power surge was a creation of the new Yankee Stadium, with its short right field porch that seemed custom-built for his compact left-handed swing, and where Damon hit 17 of his home runs. Yet according to data from hittrackeronline.com, nine of those 17 would have been home runs in at least 27 of the 30 major league parks. Meanwhile, only four of them would have failed to get out in fewer than 11 stadiums.
Last winter, Bobby Abreu -- an outfielder who is rather similar to Damon, in terms of his age, his offensive skill set, his defensive shortcomings (although in Abreu's case, the trouble is his range, not his arm) and that he had most recently played for the Yankees -- hit the free-agent market, and he encountered about as many zealous suitors as Damon has. Abreu eventually settled for a one-year, $5 million deal with the Angels. Even though Abreu put together a season with the Angels in 2009 that was, if anything, slightly worse than the one he had for the Yankees in `08 (his OPS dropped from .843 to .825, his home run total from 20 to 15), Los Angeles thought so much of him that they on Nov. 5 signed him to a two-year, $19 million contract, before other teams could have a shot at him.
It took, in other words, a season away from the Yankees, a season in which Abreu was no longer overshadowed by New York's hulking gang of All-Stars, for him to be appreciated (and financially rewarded) for what he is: a player whose qualities exceed his deficiencies, even in the twilight of his career, and who can still represent a key cog on a playoff team. Abreu's experience ought to be instructive for Damon, his erstwhile outfield mate. A move to a left fielder-needy team, such as the Giants or the Braves, even at a discounted one-year rate, could allow him to reestablish his value, and to prove that even though he can't throw -- not really -- he's not a team-killer in the field. After all, according to the Ultimate Zone Rating statistic, of the 18 players who played more than 700 innings in left last season, eight were worse than Damon.
If Damon performs to his recent offensive norms with a new club, then perhaps he and Boras can expect to receive one more multi-year bonanza with which he can close out his career, as did Abreu. Or maybe they can't. Maybe he will never again receive an offer better than those two years and $14 million. That's how the anonymous GM expects things to play out. "I don't think he'll get a couple years after next year," the GM said. "He couldn't have a better season that he did this year." Still, the GM added, "I would never bet against Boras getting what he wants to get. I would never have dreamed that [Boras client] Matt Holliday would have gotten what he did" -- seven years and $120 million, from the Cardinals two weeks ago -- "because no one else was even playing for him."
Of a report that surfaced last week that Damon might be considering retirement, Boras said, "That did not come from Johnny Damon, and that did not come from me." It is, therefore, safe to assume that Damon will be plying his trade somewhere come Opening Day. At this point, however, it also seems safe to assume that Damon will in at least 2010 turn out to be that rarest of things in baseball today: a player who is represented by Scott Boras, and who is also a bargain.
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