Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Where Will Johnny Play?

Aaron Goldstein

You can watch baseball for a lifetime and yet you can always count on seeing something you’ve never seen before.

One such moment came in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies.  It is the top of the ninth inning with two outs and Phillies closer Brad Lidge is trying to preserve a tie ballgame and send it into extra innings.  But Johnny Damon has just singled after fouling off nine pitches.  Lidge now has the daunting task of facing slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira. 

No sooner than Lidge winds up, Damon dashes for second and puts himself into scoring position.  But because the Phillies had put third baseman Pedro Feliz at second base as part of an over shift on Teixeira the third base bag is open.  Damon sees this and knowing Feliz can’t out run him he steals third base.  That’s two stolen bases on one play. 

Lidge became so flustered that he ends up hitting Teixeira with a pitch and puts him on base.  Now the situation has gone from bad to worse.  With runners at first and third, Lidge was afraid to throw his slider for fear of a wild pitch.  But wild pitches were the least of Lidge’s problems.  Alex Rodriguez came up and as he had done for the entire post-season he would deliver by doubling in Damon to give the Yankees the lead.  Teixeira and A-Rod would score on a two run single by Jorge Posada.  The Yankees had a 7-4 lead with Mariano Rivera coming into the game.  The Phillies stood no chance. Although the Yankees did not clinch until Game 6 Damon’s quick thinking was the turning point in the Series.

Damon went 8 for 22 during the 2009 World Series.  This translates into a .364 batting average with four RBIs, three walks and three stolen bases – two of which happened seconds apart.  But a day after the World Series parade Damon turned 36.  The World Series might as well have been ten years ago.

You see Damon is at the end of his four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees which he signed after playing four seasons with the Boston Red Sox (much to the chagrin of Red Sox Nation.) His last season in pinstripes was a good one.  Aside from his post-season heroics, Damon hit .282 with 24 home runs, 82 RBI and scored 107 runs in 2009.  His 24 dingers matched a career high he set during his first year in the Bronx in 2006.  No doubt he was helped by the short right field porch in the new Yankee Stadium.  There is every reason to believe he could put up similar offensive numbers for a couple more seasons.  The 15-year big league veteran owns a .288 lifetime batting average, has collected more than 2,400 hits and has scored 100 or more runs in a season ten times.

But as much as Major League Baseball celebrates the past its teams are in for the future.  No time to rest on past laurels.  Case in point: Hideki Matsui.  He went 8 for 13 (an astonishing .615 batting average) with 3 home runs and 8 RBI.  The Japanese baseball legend was named World Series MVP.  But that and a token will get you on the D train at 161st Street.  After seven seasons, Matsui had outlived his usefulness and the Yankees had no interest in negotiating with him.  Only a month after his World Series triumph, Matsui was sporting a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim jersey.

Now to be sure Damon doesn’t come cheap.  He wanted to continue making $13 million a season.  Although Damon is a potent offensive force he is essentially a one dimensional player.  He played the majority of his big league career in centerfield but due to lost range he was moved to left field in 2007.  The other knock against Damon defensively is his throwing arm or lack thereof.  Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated recently wrote, “(H)is 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.” (1)

Still, the Yankees are in the AL.  Surely, Damon would be a viable DH.  But as Damon and his agent Scott Boras lowered his contract demand to $10 million a season, the Yankees went out and signed free agent Nick Johnson for $5.5 million to fill the DH spot. (2)  Any chance of Damon wearing pinstripes next season all but completely evaporated last week with the signing of free agent outfielder Randy Winn for $2 million.  

Winn is only seven months younger than Damon.  He does, however, have fresher legs and a better throwing arm.  On the other hand, the switch hitting Winn only hit 2 home runs in nearly 600 plate appearances with the San Francisco Giants last season.  The derision that has met the Winn signing has led Yankees manager Joe Girardi to say that Winn isn’t replacing Damon.  Former Detroit Tiger Curtis Granderson will take Damon’s spot in left while Winn will be a fourth outfielder. (3)

So where will Johnny Damon play next season?  Or will he play at all?  There were rumors of retirement a couple of weeks ago but few take such talk seriously. (4) Several teams have expressed interest in acquiring Damon’s services including the Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics (he played a season with them in 2001), Toronto Blue Jays and his hometown Tampa Bay Rays.  The team that seems to have the best chance of adding Damon at the moment would be the Detroit Tigers. (5)  But with the way baseball works all that could change tomorrow.  So it’s possible he could stay a Yankee after all. In which case, Red Sox fans will continue to boo him with fervor.

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