In Johnny Damon, the A's got what they needed—for a year, at least
Billy Beane's phone conversation with Allard Baird on Jan. 5 wasn't the first between the two general managers this winter. For months the Athletics' Beane had been bending the ear of his Royals counterpart, trying to strike a deal for Ail-Star outfielder Johnny Damon. This latest chat was different. "We were just talking baseball stuff, nothing about Johnny," says Baird, who wanted to upgrade Kansas City's bullpen before spring training. At one point Baird mentioned that he had his eye on Devil Rays righthanded closer Roberto Hernandez but didn't think he had the ammunition for a trade. "I'll call you back," Beane replied. "I think I can get him [for you]." Three days later Beane shipped outfielder Ben Grieve to Tampa Bay for Hernandez and righthander Cory Lidle, then forwarded the closer, shortstop prospect Angel Berroa and catcher A.J. Hinch to Kansas City for Damon and minor league infielder Mark Ellis.
This was one of those rare trades in which every party appeared to get what it really wanted. The 27-year-old Damon, who last season hit .327, had a solid .386 on-base percentage and led the American League in stolen bases (46) and runs scored (136), solves three of Oakland's glaring weaknesses: lack of speed, low production from the leadoff hitter (in 2000, Oakland's regular leadoff man, rookie centerfielder Terrence Long, had a subpar .336 on-base percentage) and shoddy outfield defense. Grieve, 24, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1998, frustrated the A's with his slowness afoot—he hit into a major-league-leading 31 double plays—and limited outfield range, but he gives the rebuilding Devil Rays, who were last in the American League in batting average (.257) last season, one of the game's best young left-handed hitters (career .280). "He'll put up big numbers in that dome," says one AL scout of Grieve's prospects in Tropicana Field. Adds Beane, "The only way we considered moving a player of Grieve's caliber was to get someone like Damon in return."
The Royals also accomplished their main off-season goals. First, and not without regret, they unloaded Damon—a free agent after the 2001 season who was all but certain to sign elsewhere—before losing all trading leverage. Next, they filled gaping long-and short-term holes. Berroa, who hit .277 with 10 home runs for the Class A Visalia Oaks last year, immediately became the top shortstop prospect in K.C.'s system. Hernandez fills a more immediate need. Over the past two seasons Royals relievers blew more saves (56) than any other team, a total devastating to a young club's mental well-being. Though not quite the intimidating fireballer he was early in his career with the White Sox, the 36-year-old Hernandez (32 saves in 40 opportunities, a 3.19 ERA last season) still throws in the mid-90s and brings instant credibility to Tampa Bay's bullpen.
That Damon, a Scott Boras client who has said he won't sign a long-term deal until after testing the free-agent market next winter, ended up in small-market Oakland speaks volumes about how the A's are approaching the 2001 season. To get his man (who will play leftfield), Beane surrendered precisely the type of player he has spent years developing: Grieve is young, productive and under contract for $12.4 million over the next three seasons (a relative bargain). Given that Oakland must also sign reigning MVP Jason Giambi to a long-term deal, the chances of Damon wearing green and gold beyond next season seem remote.
The A's, who extended the eventual world champion Yankees to five games in their Division Series in October, can live with that. "What's wrong with having a player for one year if he helps you take that next step?" says Beane. "We weren't that far from the World Series last year. At some point you have to grasp the opportunity."
Clayton Starts Over
Short and Sweeter?
New White Sox shortstop Royce Clayton would have been an ideal candidate for David Letterman's old Brush with Greatness segments, Late Night bits in which ordinary audience members told of connections with the rich and famous. In 1996 Clayton replaced the game's greatest defensive shortstop, a changing of the guard that sat poorly with Cardinals fans and with Ozzie Smith. Last month Clayton, who signed a four-year, $22 million contract with the Rangers after the 1999 season, became expendable after Texas signed 25-year-old free agent Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million pact "[Rangers general manager Doug Melvin] told me they were going after him and asked me if I wanted to move to second," says Clayton. "I said no. I still have a long career left as a shortstop."
Three days after landing the best young offensive shortstop ever, the Rangers shipped Clayton, 31, to Chicago. He was happy with the deal but faces another potentially awkward situation: replacing incumbent shortstop Jose Valentin, who in November signed a below-market, three-year, $15 million deal to stay with the White Sox. Chicago general manager Ken Williams says Valentin will happily move to third to make room for Clayton. "I'm going to talk to him as soon as we get to spring training," Clayton says of Valentin.
The move is a chance at a fresh start for Clayton, an eight-year veteran who endured one of his most difficult seasons in 2000. The Rangers' experiment in moving Clayton to the leadoff spot backfired when he hit .202 and had a puny .237 on-base percentage in 109 at bats; his .242 overall average was a career low for seasons in which he had at least 400 at bats. "There were things I could have handled better," Clayton says. "It's hard to leave the Rangers, but when they look up and [the White Sox] win the World Series, they'll say they traded a pretty good shortstop."