Johnny Damon Could Wind Up as One of Baseball’s Biggest Bargains

Johnny Damon Could Wind Up as One of Baseball's Biggest Bargains Scott Boras clients seldom end up being offseason bargains, but the eccentric Johnny Damon could well be an exception to that rule.

As the hot stove season winds down and spring training draws near, Damon is struggling to find a team that’s willing to offer him the two-year, $20 million deal he is seeking. The 36-year-old outfielder rejected a two-year, $14 million proposal from the Yankees before New York signed designated hitter Nick Johnson, and he is now likely to be limited to one-year agreements for a significantly lower salary.

A similar scenario played out earlier this offseason with 30-year-old first-baseman Adam LaRoche, who turned down a two-year, $17 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. LaRoche countered with a request for three years at $31.5 million, but wound up taking only $6 million for one year from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Damon’s search for a new team is complicated by two factors: a dearth of teams in need of an offense-first outfielder and teams’ lack of confidence in his ability to replicate his 2009 performance.

Damon hit .282 with a .365 on-base average and a .489 slugging percentage last season, while mashing 36 doubles and 24 homers. But just seven of those long balls came away from Yankee Stadium, where the short right-field porch is perfectly suited for Damon’s swing. Damon’s OPS on the road was .795, compared to .915 at home, and while he’d be a valuable component of any lineup, his diminishing defensive abilities make the vast split more worrisome.

According to John Dewan’s plus-minus system, Damon made five fewer plays than the average left fielder in 2009. Factor in his weak arm, and Damon becomes somewhat of a liability in the outfield.

Despite his defensive woes, Damon was nonetheless worth 3.6 “wins above replacement” last season, which translates to $13.6 million in financial value. And he won’t get anywhere near that on his next contract.

Damon will almost surely be victimized by market trends — plenty of outfielders are available, yet there is little demand for their services. The Yankees can no longer afford him and reportedly have come to terms with Randy Winn on a one-year deal worth roughly $2 million.

The A’s were in the bidding for Damon, and might’ve offered him $5-6 million annually had they not signed Ben Sheets to a one-year, $10 million deal on Tuesday. Now, Oakland has only a few million to spend, and GM Billy Beane’s top priority is finding a utility infielder.

Earlier reports indicated that the Giants could be interested in Damon, as well, but after inking Mark DeRosa to a two-year, $12 million deal and bringing in Aubrey Huff for one-year and $3 million, San Francisco has neither the funds nor the space to sign him.

According to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, Boras is now trying to engage the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers in talks for Damon. Roughly translated, that means the normally aggressive negotiator is merely grasping at straws.

The Reds already have a left-handed hitting candidate for left field in Chris Dickerson and might be more inclined to re-sign Jonny Gomes as a platoon partner. The Tigers are currently projected to play Ryan Raburn and Magglio Ordonez in the outfield corners with former Yankees prospect Austin Jackson in center. Jackson could certainly use more seasoning in Triple-A, but GM Dave Dombrowski is inclined to let him learn on the job.

Perhaps the Braves, who already reeled in a former Yankees outfielder by trading for Melky Cabrera this winter, could jump into the bidding. But with Nate McLouth entrenched in center and Cabrera at one of the corners, signing Damon would block Jason Heyward — arguably the top prospect in all of baseball.

Clearly, Damon is running out of options, and that means Boras is running out of ways to pit teams against each other and drive up the price for the two-time All-Star. Unless Damon opts to hang up his cleats, he is now virtually certain to be one of the offseason’s biggest bargains. Yet, there aren’t many places left for him to go — even at a significant discount.

Whichever general manager ends up inking Damon will get plenty of bang for his buck.

Purely speculating about teams that have not yet been mentioned, Damon — if he’s willing to settle for a one-year deal worth $2-4 million — might intrigue the Tampa Bay Rays, particularly if GM Andrew Friedman can find a way to unload designated hitter Pat Burrell. The Marlins are another possibility, if they are persuaded to trade Dan Uggla and move current left fielder Chris Coghlan to second base. And, theoretically, there could be room for Damon in Milwaukee if the Brewers are unsatisfied with incumbent center fielder Carlos Gomez, or are inclined to add a platoon partner for Corey Hart.

A risky, but potentially worthwhile strategy for Damon could be to wait until spring training gets underway and hope for a starting outfielder somewhere to suffer a long-term injury. That appears to be the only way a serious enough need could arise for a team to consider offering him a pricier contract.

As he approaches his late 30s, the clock is ticking on Damon’s days as a productive major leaguer, so it’s not surprising that he’s determined to get the most out of what may well be his last big deal.

But the timing couldn’t be worse for Damon, as the late stages of free agency are clearly not a player’s market. The sooner he realizes that, the better off he’ll be.

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