The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

 

Damonic Possession

If you heard me cussing last night as the news about the Johnny Damon signing trickled in, you'd have wondered which side of the aisle I was sitting on. "In the words of Joe Schultz: shitfuck," I wrote to the Baseball Prospectus internal mailing list, a medium which rarely sees a four-letter word, though now that I think about it, Steve Goldman dropped a few f-bombs when it came to the Ron Villone trade last week.

I'm pissed at the Damon signing, four years and $52 million, because it's back to business as usual for the Yanks. Damon is a 32-year-old centerfielder, A-list celebrity and Scott Boras client who was seeking a ridiculous seven-year deal that nobody was going to give him. Obviously, the Yanks called his bluff, going far beyond the Red Sox most recent four-year, $40 million offer, one the Sox never got the opportunity to match. So much for loyalty or Damon's words from last May:
"There's no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they are going to come after me hard. It's definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It's not what I need."
Uh-huh. So now Damon will be handsomely overpaid to deteriorate right before our very eyes in Yankee Stadium. If you liked watching the decline and fall of Bernie Williams, get ready for more, because he's already as bad a thrower as Williams about five years ahead of schedule. In fact, per BP's numbers, he was at -5 runs last year, while the Yankee CFs, including Williams, were at -1. Yeesh.

He's a better hitter than Williams circa 2005, of course, and likely 2006, too. He hit a handsome .316/.366/.439 for the Red Sox last year, with a VORP of 49.2, second best in the AL. Yankee centerfielders hit a combined .243/.297/.333 with a -11.5 VORP. That's a difference of about 60 runs right there, six wins, a six-win swing between two division rivals who were separated by an eyelash so narrow that the Sox still think they shared the AL East title.

But there are a few reasons to be disconcerted about the Damon signing. First, at four years, $52 million, it's essentially the same deal they gave Hideki Matsui back in November. Matsui is seven months younger, but their baseball ages are the same; both were considered to have their Age 31 season last year. Matsui hit .305/.367/.496 for a .293 Equivalent Average (EqA). Damon's line is only worth a .280 EqA (.260 is average) thanks to the fact that he was helped more by his home environment, Fenway Park. And that's the nut of it: Damon is a much lesser hitter away from Fenway. Over the past three years:
         -----HOME------   -----AWAY------
AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG
Damon .318 .388 .448 .278 .340 .433
Matsui .298 .362 .505 .296 .377 .463
Clear edge to Matsui on neutral ground. But more to the point, I'm not really crazy about either contract by itself, and taken together, that's $104 million worth of obligations for two players who are going to grow old side by side. So much for fiscal restraint or the lack of a big splash from George Steinbrenner this winter. So much for Damon's trademark unfrozen caveman look, too. Think he'll be hearing about that one from Sox fans?

The Yanks are better today than they were yesterday, and their division rivals are worse. That may be enough for some. But in the long view, Damon costs the Yanks a draft pick, as does reliever Kyle Farnsworth. Given the obvious need for the Yanks to shift over to a model of building from within, the Damon signing moves them further away from that goal, and it doesn't help that the Sox get their pick. Details have yet to be announced, but I suspect the contract is backloaded a bit too, meaning they'll be paying more and getting less down the road, another fading veteran the Yanks will have to accommodate. Roll over, Mike Mussina, and tell Randy Johnson the news.

Damon's a definite upgrade over Bubba Crosby, who Yankee GM Brian Cashman had bluffed about opening the 2006 season with in center. My personal preference would have been for the Yanks to make a low-level move by signing Jeff DaVanon, recently released by the Angels. DaVanon is a 32-year-old switch-hitter with good plate discipline, speed and the ability to play all three positions, so would have represented a sensible (and virtually free) upgrade over Crosby. He hit a weak .231/.347/.311 last year, but his career line of .256/.348/.401 is more respectable, the kind of thing you can stick in the nine-hole without worrying about a run hemorrhage, yet guiltlessly slide into a fourth-outfielder role when the midseason cavalry arrives, and flip for a Single-A live arm whenever you need the roster space. According to his agent, who's probably exaggerating, 15 teams showed interest in DaVanon, though a reported two-year, $3.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks turned out to be a rumor. Given that he's the son of a futility infielder, I've always had a soft spot for him. Clearly I'm not alone.

I do like the pending signing of reliever Octavio Dotel, who's reportedly getting a one-year, $2 million deal with incentives that could raise it to $5 million. Dotel is a fireballer who struck out 122 in 85.1 innings in 2004; for his career he's K'd 10.9 per nine innings. He's got a 97 MPH fastball, but he tends to get pounded occasionally; he gave up 13 homers in 2004, 1.4 per nine innings, which isn't what you want to see. He was limited to just 15.1 innings last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery in June, but it wasn't just any old TJ. His ulnar collateral ligament wasn't as badly torn as most surgery candidates are, and for that reason, he had been encouraged to continue rehabbing the injury rather than going under the knife. And speaking of "Under the Knife," here's what Will Carroll had to say:
Dotel had an overlay TJ. Remember how three surgeons didn't want to do the surgery? The UCL wasn't torn through, somewhere around a 60% tear. He could have pitched with some pain and maybe it would snap, maybe it wouldn't. [Surgeon Dr. James] Andrews put the graft over the existing, damaged ligament so he never lost proprioception. I don't THINK he'll be back on Opening Day, but it wouldn't surprise me.
According to A's trainer Larry Davis, the pain was unmanageable enough for Dotel to decide on surgery despite the advice of those surgeons: "Everybody's tolerance level is different. Octavio feels like he's tried long enough. ... He's been throwing a long time and is tired of recurrent tendinitis."

I suspect a return from Dotel sometime in June is probably more realistic, with the All-Star break as a worst-case scenario. TJ recoveries are much more predictable than shoulder surgeries -- remember Jon Lieber? -- and he'll effectively be a fine in-season addition to the Yankee bullpen at a reasonable price. I'm still not overly keen on the bullpen makeover, which stars Farnsworth, Villone, submariner Mike Myers, and likely Aaron Small joining the fading Tanyon Sturtze in getting the ball to Mariano Rivera. But that's a story for another day.

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