"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Damon Server

After reading through the comments to the last two posts on the Damon signing, I felt the need to generate a new post in response to the many misconceptions that are being tossed around:

To begin with, George Steinbrenner isn’t spending his money. He’s spending the Yankees’ money. There are many major league owners who are richer than Steinbrenner, but no major league teams that generate more revenue. That said, when the Yankees expenses increase, it does come out of the fans’ pockets. In addition to the cost of concessions at the Stadium, consider the fact that ticket prices have gone up each of the last two years as the Yankees have slipped into the red.

All of which is proof that the luxury tax is working. Since the new basic agreement went into effect in 2003, the Yankees have exceeded the luxury tax threshold each year and in 2005 paid more than $30 million in luxury tax alone. In 2006, they’ll owe forty cents on every dollar they spend above $136.5 million. As of this morning, Hardball Dollars estimates the Yankees’ 2006 payroll at $186.2 million. That figure does not include the league-minimum salaries of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Phillips or Bubba Crosby, nor does it include the still-undetermined arbitration awards due to Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small. Chacon earned $2.35 million in ’05 and finished strong. Let’s round him up to $4 million. Small earned the league minimum, but went 10-0, so let’s give him $1 million (both are likely lowball estimates). Wang, Phillips and Crosby make up another million. So that’s a $192.2 million payroll, $55.7 million more than the tax threshold, meaning the Yankees already owe $22.28 million in luxury tax. Any further additions, such as a designated hitter, will actually cost the Yankees 40 percent more than the actual 2006 salaries of those players.

Also, for those counting the big salaries that have come off the books, don’t forget that Jason Giambi and Randy Johnson will earn a combined $8 million more in 2006 than they did in 2005.

At any rate, for readers such as Debris to pin the Damon signing, or any other, on the Yankees’ “economic advantage” over the Red Sox is simply absurd. Now that the Red Sox are bouncing around in John Henry’s deep pockets and the Yankees are cutting payroll, that advantage no longer exists.

Speaking of Debris, he was one of a couple of readers who seemed to have some problems with the schedule of the Damon contract. Debris compared Damon in 2008 to Bernie ’05, but Damon will be two years younger in ’08 than Bernie was in ’05. Levy2020, meanwhile, balked at paying Damon $13 mil in 2011, but his contract is up after 2009. (That said, thanks to Debris for correcting my right/left field flub in my previous post.)

“Alvaro Espinoza” claimed that the Damon signing failed to make the Yankees younger, ignoring that last years starting CF was Bernie Williams, who is five years Damon’s senior.

Second to that, no2ss made an excellent point about Damon’s effect on Bernie. Should the Yankees resign Bernie, which somehow seems less likely now, the risk of Torre falling back into the old habit of starting him in center on a regular basis has all but eliminated (barring a prolonged injury to Damon, of course), which is nice added bonus. That said, as I wrote here, the Yankees should avoid resigning Bernie altogether, which should tell you how I feel about the comments that project him as the starting DH in ’06.

My favorite comment, thus far, also has to do with Bernie and comes from reader joejoejoe:

Bernie Williams is not the only thirtysomething OF in MLB. It’s not realistic to use his production alone as a model for other aging players. Many other good players are productive into their mid to late thirties. Bernie had injury problems above and beyond the average player (shoulder and knees).

Tim Raines and Marquis Grissom are two recent examples of OFs that have played into their mid 30s with only mild decline. Damon isn’t the player Raines was but he’s far better than Grissom. And both Damon and Matsui will be younger at the end of their contracts than Sheffield (age 36) was last year.

Consider also Steve Finley, who may be cooked in his 40s, but was very good in his late 30s, and Kenny Lofton, who despite renting a room in Joe Torre’s dog house, remains a useful player in his late 30s.

All of this speaks to the fact that, despite what some commentors appear to believe, speedy players actually age better than slow ones for the same reason that fastball pitchers age better than junkballers. Its a simple matter of having room for decline. A fast player, or nasty fastball, slows down to average, while a slow player becomes a statue and a slow pitch turns into batting practice.

Now, in the grass is always greener department, some of you (specifically Sabernar and Standuptriple) have pined after Eric Byrnes, who was non-tendered by Baltimore yesterday. Putting aside that Byrnes is a major headcase who made one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen, costing the A’s the 2003 ALDS, he hit .226/.294/.371 (.203/.268/.324 against righties) for three teams in 2005 and turns 30 in February. There’s a reason the Orioles didn’t offer him a contract for 2006. The Yankees already have a good-field, no-hit outfielder named Bubba Crosby.

The key phrase there is “no-hit.” It’s time for everyone to stop pretending Bubba Crosby is a prospect. He’s going to be 30 in August and hit .231/.306/.362 in 160 at-bats with triple-A Columbus last year. His monster half-season with triple-A Las Vegas in 2003 was a fluke that saw him hit his natural peak in the hitting-happy Pacific Coast League. Bubba’s a .260/.320/.410 guy at best and he’s already entered the decline stage of his career. Fercryinoutloud, he’s only three years younger than Johnny Damon and has a career .221/.253/.301 line in the major leagues.

Likewise, Melky Cabrera is not ready for the show. As I said in comments yesterday:

I saw Melky Cabrera play center from the right field bleachers last year and it was horrifying. I’m dumbfounded as to how the player I saw could have come to the Yankees with such a impressive defensive reputation. What’s more, Cabrera didn’t hit at any level last year. Cabrera’s just 21 and should be given time to develop. He shouldn’t be allowed to set foot in Yankee Stadium without a ticket in 2006.

Similarly, Robinson Can could prove to be one of the better second basemen in the American League by the time he reaches his peak, but that’s a long way off. He just turned 23 and, as I wrote in my 2005 postmortem:

Cano’s lack of patience is much worse that even Soriano’s. Soriano drew a walk every 21 plate appearances in 2001. This past season Cano had more than 34 plate appearances per walk. Cano was also a distant dead last among qualified players in pitches per plate appearance (3.05—Soriano actually saw a solid 3.84 pitches per plate appearance in 2001). In fact the only hitter with more than 100 at-bats to have seen fewer pitches in his average plate appearance was Cano’s teammate Bubba Crosby. Obviously, Cano will have to learn to be more selective if he hopes to continue to be a productive major league hitter lest the league stop throwing him strikes altogether.

Barring a complete collapse from Posada, Cano should not bat higher than eighth in 2006.

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention here is Damon’s defense. We all seem to agree that his throwing arm is Bernie-like in it’s lack of strength, but are mixed as to what we expect from him as a fly catcher. Looking at Baseball Prospectus’s Rate stats, Damon was consistently excellent in center from 2000-2004, which accounts for his physical peak ages of 26-30. In 2005 he dipped below average, but as has been pointed out, he also suffered various injuries–though none of them landed him on the DL. Then again, such bumps and bruises are the natural result of Damon’s all-out style of play, which means more can be expected in 2006 and beyond and the cumulative effect could result in a Bernie-like decline, countering Joe’s comment from above.

It has been suggested that Damon should be shifted to left field or even first base in a couple years when those injuries begin to take their toll and players such as Aaron Rowand, Vernon Wells and Andruw Jones hit the free agent market, which all three will do after the 2007 season. Certainly the idea of trading up to one of those three players for 2008 is appealing, but the Yankees would have to trade Damon to make it happen. As a career .290/.353/.431 hitter, Damon is tremendously valuable as a center fielder, where the average AL CF hit .268/.322/407 in 2005, but he would likely struggle to carry a corner spot in 2008 (2005 AL averages for those positions: 1B: .271/.343/.457; LF: .278/.333/.437; RF: .270/.332/.451).

As for those who have suggested putting Damon in left in ’06, pushing Matsui to right, Sheffield to DH and clearing center for Bubba. First see my comment above about Crosby. Then consider that the Yankees’ current worst-case scenario for DH is Andy Phillips who did the following in Columbus over the past two seasons:

2004: .318/.388/.569
2005: .300/.379/.573

Okay. Home stretch . . .

With regards to the right field dimensions of Fenway Park vs. Yankee Stadium, the Pesky Pole may be just 302 feet from home plate, but straight away right in Fenway is 380. In Yankee Stadium it’s 353 to the old Yankee bullpen between the bleachers and box seats in right.

With regards to Teeth’s attack of what I proclaimed to be an 11-win swing in the AL East resulting from the Damon signing, he is correct to be skeptical, but allow me to explain. Yankees were at replacement level in CF before signing Damon (Bubba Crosby being the very definition of replacement level). Minus Damon, the Red Sox are now at replacement level (Adam Stern, coming off an injury-shortened season, being the only CF candidate on their 40-man roster with any major league experience, and that being a mere 15 at-bats). I didn’t mean to imply that the Yankees would win eleven more games than the Red Sox in 2006, but that, as the two teams race toward 2006, the Yankees have just taken an 11 win lead. Certainly the Red Sox can make up some of those wins elsewhere, but the key there is that they’re playing catch-up. Resources the Sox could have directed elsewhere (such as their similarly gaping hole at shortstop) now must be directed toward CF. Also, Damon has averaged 5.85 wins above replacement in his four years in Boston. I think using his 2005 WARP total of 5.5 is a fair estimate of his value for 2006. All of that said, as a result of this signing alone, there has indeed been an 11-win swing in the division

Finally, there were some questions about what draft picks the Red Sox would get as a result of the signing. The best explanation of compensatory draft picks I’ve ever read is this one from Baseball Prospectus’s Thomas Gorman. What wasn’t mentioned in comments is that Kyle Farnsworth was also a type-A free agent. However, as Damon is a higher ranked type-A free agent, then the Red Sox do in fact get the Yankees first round pick that the Braves had previously claimed. Both teams will get a supplemental round pick, with the Braves choosing ahead of the Red Sox as a result of the order of the signings. Meanwhile, the Braves will get the Yankees’ first second round pick.

The Yankees are not out of luck, however, as they will get the Phillies first round pick and a supplemental round pick as a result of the Tom Gordon signing. The Yankees picks in both the first and supplemental rounds will come before the Red Sox’s picks as a result of the pre-established drafting order and the order of the signings. The Yankees are guaranteed the Phillies first round pick because there are no type-A free agents left on the market who outrank Gordon. Nope, not even Roger Clemens.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver