A sticky situation in LF

damon_pb250.jpgTHE MAIN EVENT
The main focus on the Yankees’ offseason seems to be on the big free agent decision, namely Hideki Matsui but not Johnny Damon, or Johnny Damon but not Hideki Matsui, or neither Hideki Matsui nor Johnny Damon and please hold the onions.

This seems like a complicated knot for folks to untangle, and I admit to struggling with it myself, but only because the Yankees have a paucity of replacements in this area. On a basic philosophical level, this isn’t complicated at all: you let both of them go for the simple reason that they’ll be 36 next year, and older still in however many contract years they will require to sign. The problem is that hewing to that old Branch Rickey philosophy of, “better a year too early than a year too late” requires that you know the answer to a subsequent question: “And then what?”

The Yankees are not deep in outfield prospects at the higher Minor League levels. In future years, we may be discussing the merits of Melky Mesa, Neil Medchill, Kelvin De Leon and Zach Heathcott, but for now, Austin Jackson is the only game in town. Hitting .300 with four home runs and 40 walks at Triple-A is better than not, but it isn’t starting corner outfield material and possibly not starting anything material. Jackson, 23 next season, is almost obligated to take a big step forward if he’s going to play regularly for the Yankees, even in center. Suffice it to say that neither Melky Cabrera nor Brett Gardner is qualified to carry left field, a position at which the average cat hit .270/.341/.440 this year.

There are useful outfielders available on the free agent market, but they all have some flaws. Matt Holliday will be only 30 next year, but he will be expensive, cost his team a first-round draft pick, and doesn’t provide the kind of left-handed power which is more important to the Yankees than ever. Jason Bay will be 31, which gives him a year’s head start on Holliday in the decline-phase derby, is a defensive millstone, and like Holliday, he ain’t a southpaw. Rick Ankiel, who will turn 30 in July, does have left-handed pop and as a player who was a bit stretched in center field might prove to have pretty good range in left. He also hit only .235/.285/.387 and rarely walks, so the acquiring team would be hoping for a rebound, but given that Ankiel has only had two seasons as a regular, “Rebound to what?” is a valid question. Jermaine Dye has certainly hit in his career, but he’s 36, wasn’t particularly impressive this season, hasn’t played left field in about a century and a half and is range-challenged in right. Of this group, only Holliday qualifies as an “all-around” player.

Word to the wise: no one had better mention Garrett Anderson if they know what’s good for them.  

Another alternative is to pursue a trade, but that’s going to cost the Yankees pitching resources that Brian Cashman has preferred to hoard, or just money, if he wanted to take on a bloated contract like that of Vernon Wells — not that there’s any reason to do that. It’s hard to know exactly who the Yankees might get, and if they could trade into someone young instead of a veteran as flawed as the free agents above.

If the Yankees prefer to limit their choices to Damon or Matsui, the argument for one vs. the other comes down to which you believe will better bear up at an advanced age. The answer just might be Matsui, compromised knees and all. Damon had a swell year, but a good deal of his power production was due to his becoming adept at poking the ball down the left field line for home runs at Yankee Stadium. His ability to hit on the road, which necessarily is exactly half his job, was less certain. He hit a respectable .284/.349/.446 with seven home runs. Matsui hit 15 home runs on the road, having not taken advantage of Yankee Stadium to the same extent that Damon did. He’s far more likely to adapt to the ballpark next year than Damon is to start hitting on the road.

The downside to Matsui is that while Damon’s days as a defensive asset seem to have gone the way of the economy, at least you can stick him in left field as needed, whereas to have Matsui available at all you have to restrict him to designated hitting. That’s a serious problem, as it clogs up the roster and prevents the Yankees from resting other players in the DH spot. However, it could be a blessing in disguise. The problem with a DH rotation is and always has been who the on-field subs are. If Alex Rodriguez spends ten games next season DHing, then who plays third base for those ten games? If it’s Ramiro Pena, then you’ve taken a huge offensive hit. Ditto any Jorge Posada/Frankie Cervelli DH/catcher combo, or Derek Jeter/Ramiro Pena. If Matsui is on the roster, then subs will play only as needed, whereas with Damon around, Joe Girardi might feel liberated, even obligated, to give players rest.

The best answer remains “neither” and “Get some guys between 22 and 27!” but this is easier said than done in this age of baseball in which “young” is synonymous with “cheap.”

The Arizona Republic (with a h/t to MLB Trade Rumors) reports that the Diamondbacks have been talking about moving catcher Chris Snyder, who lost his job to Miguel Montero this year, for Toronto first baseman Lyle Overbay. The deal has apparently fallen through, but that’s good news as this is a player the Yankees should very much be in on if they expect Jorge Posada to spend significant time as the designated hitter in 2010.

Snyder, 28 next year, missed a good chunk of the season due to a nerve problem in his lower back and was no fun when he did play because of it. However, from 2005 through 2008, he hit a combined .251/.346/.438 with a home run every 24 at-bats (or 21 in a 500 at-bat season). Those are strong numbers for a part-time catcher. Now, he did have some flaws during that time. He disappeared versus right-handed pitchers (.222/.314/.374 vs. .273/.374/.460 vs. left-handers) and on the road (.229/.323/.405 vs. 247/.344/.394 at home), though he did maintain his power away from the hot, dry air of Phoenix. In his career, he has caught 32 percent of potential basestealers, which is a bit better than Posada, four or five more caught per 100 attempts, assuming Posada has another year at 2009’s 28 percent in him.

As in the previous section, the Yankees’ ability to live without Hideki Matsui is directly connected to their commitment to upgrading the bench. If you have real players to step in and perform for the stars, great. If you only have Angel Berroa, well, the current world champions were 4-8 in games in which Berroa started. Basically, the Yankees face a Darwinian choice when it comes to going after solid second-string players.


  1. barrylane@sympatico.ca

    Re: Damon-Matsui

    Straightfoward…you are the best team in baseball and clearly not faltering. Keep the team intact. Replace the parts when they weaken. And with all respect to Mr. Rickey, his teams were wonderful, but they were not World Series Winners, literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, they were the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    So, to sum up, let us not, even in print, be so all knowing and arrogant that we wish to destroy the unit that we all admire.


  2. amol

    One option the Yankees have would be to offer Damon arbitration. Granted, if he accepted, they would probably end up paying him more money than they’d like, but they would only be on the hook for a season. If he turns arbitration down, they can always try to sign Matsui or Jim Thome (who, thanks to the quirks of the Elias ranking system, wouldn’t cost draft picks) to a single year deal. If, after all, they can’t get someone young, they should try for someone short-term.

  3. paulrice28@mac.com

    Hello Steve,
    thanks for the great writing (including the vocabulary lessons? “paucity” as Stengel said? you can look it up… I did!)

    I was intrigued by your thoughts on Austin Jackson. Austin was born 2/87.If my math is better than my vocabulary the he was 22 during the 2009 season and will be 23 in 2010

    I compared Bernie Williams stats at Columbus when he was 22
    He had 8 home runs when he was 22 and the year he was 23
    He had fewer AB?s then Austin who played a ton?. (not sure why?)

    The numbers when comparing the 22 year olds ?the differences are similar…with the edge to Bernie

    I guess I feel a young Jackson in the mix would benefit the team in 2010. Matsui knees seem to suffer chronic “kneehemispherical thrombosis with internal vetriliquiitis (you can look it up). I assume if he is signed he will be a DH but it?s a roll of the dice

    Given the unimpressive fee agent field I expect – hope the Yankees will bring up 1- 2 players (Jackson – Cervelli ) Resign Damon who seems healthier than Matsui

    Then you have the “DH-a go round”

    Last comment what are your thoughts on Kevin Russo

    Many Thanks
    Paul from Santa Fe via Brooklyn

  4. tstimmel

    i don’t understand all the commotion. there is no way that damon stays with yanks because will get him a 3 yr deal, maybe even with bosox. let him go. Matsui can only go to seattle and i doubt they pay for him unless the japanese marketing makes it plausible. So left field…..Give Gardner the everyday shot. if he doesn’t make it, then make a mid year trade. Game plan is to make room for jackson and to perhaps sign crawford when he’s a free agent next year. If Gardner hits .220, he still provides good defense, and will steal and create chaos. More interesting is pitching dilemma. both hughes and chamberlain have head issues. Chamberlain is just better suited to be a short reliever both in temperment and fastball, which started to come back in WS. there is the argument that after 130 innings last year, he got tired and lost 4mph on it, but i don’t really buy it. Hughes was GREAT reliever in season and no explanation for his total loss of command in post season. Whatever it is, it is what made him fail as a starter. i think jays take him even up for Halladay and that’s the trade to make. Halladay probably also mentor burnett to be 30% better. If you have a starting rotation of CC, Halladay, Burnett, Pettitte, and anyone….and a bullpen of Mo, Joba, Robertson, reincarnated Marte, and Aceves, i don’t much care about taking a one year chance with melky and gardner in the OF, do you?

  5. desalesman

    Question for Steve Goldman, from Derek Jeter (as imagined by Rick Rodriguez): “Hmm, I just won a Gold Glove. Hey Steve, “HOW DO YA LIKE ME NOW?”

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