Thursday, December 22, 2005

A blessing in disguise?

The world is ending. The sky is falling. The Yankees have taken the Red Sox star center fielder. They're now guarenteed to have the best record in baseball, and drive the Red Sox into the ground. If you've listened to any of the talk radio the last couple of days, that's what you'd think, anyway.

As all of you already know, the Yankees signed CF Johnny Damon to a four year deal worth $52M. That's a little less money than Albert Pujols is making, but more than Vlad Guerrero and Miguel Tejada. At a price like that, how could the Red Sox let him get away? Yet we keep hearing thinks like "That Larry Lucchino dragged his feet, and he's running the team into the ground. If Epstein was around, he'd have found a way to keep Johnny."

Really, it's much less complicated than that. The Red Sox simply didn't think Damon was worth $52M for four years. Can you blame them? The Sox offered him 4 years, $40M. They didn't drag their feet. They had their offer, they knew what they wanted to spend, and Damon got more elsewhere.

As a baseball move, Damon was a 32 year old who, from his all-out style of play, seems to keep coming down with nagging injuries. He's a wildly overrated defensive centerfielder--he's likely not even average. Slghtly below average is an upgrade over the dreck that the Yankees had in center in 2005, but it's not like Damon is going to get better. He's not nearly as fast as he was in 2002, and he can't throw the ball to the cutoff man in the air.

If the Sox DO get Jeremy Reed, which seems to be getting treated as a formality at this point, they're actually getting an upgrade defensively, and probably won't downgrade nearly as much with the bat as people seem to think:

Road stats in 2005:

Reed: 244 AB's: .254/.328/.377, 3 HR, 15 2B, 27 BB
Damon: 322 AB's: .298/.342/.438, 7 HR, 16 2Bs, 21 BB

So Reed, a 24 year old who isn't arbitration eligible, who had a disappointing season by most accounts, had a higher walk rate, and a higher rate of doubles, in games played in neutral parks than Damon, a 32 year old.

Plus, Reed was ranked the #2 prospect in baseball in 2004's baseball prospectus. This is a guy who hit over .400 in over 200 AB's in Double A in 2003, and hit .397 in his cup of tea in the majors (50-odd AB's) in 2004.

So it seems to me that Reed is a guy who is subject to high variations in his battinng average. .250 seems right about the lower bound of what he'd do. More likely, he'll hit between .270-.290, and if he does, with his better walk rate, better doubles rate, and better defense, he'll be roughly as valuable as Damon will be if Damon hits .310-.320. And if Damon hits .280, you're going to have a lot of ticked off Yankee fans, wondering why the Red Sox are scoring significantly more runs than their superstar lineup.

The Red Sox we've seen in the past would've thrown the money at Damon, the aging superstar. Just like they threw money at Jack Clark, Andre Dawson, and so many other players who were on their downside in the '80's and '90's. They wouldn't have looked at a guy like Jeremy Reed, whose low batting average makes him look undesirable, and hides a lot of his value.

As far as from the Yankees standpoint, Damon is clearly an upgrade for right now. Center field has been a weakness for the Yankees for three years now. Damon should lead to more value for them almost by accident. One more thing to keep an eye on though: Damon has a career .252/.301/.346 line in Yankee Stadium in the regular season. Granted, that doesn't include Game 7 of the ALCS, and a few of those AB's came in before Damon's run with the Sox, when the Yankees had a lot of good pitching. Still, it's something to note.

Sure, it's possible that Damon will love New York. Maybe he'll love the nightlife, and being able to make a weekly appearance on the Today Show. Maybe the Sox don't even get Reed. Maybe they're stuck trying to revitalize Corey Patterson. Maybe they do get Reed and his power never develops. Either way, Johnny Damon is getting to the point where he's going to be a higher risk, lower reward player, and by 2008 the Yankees could have a player pretty similar to Bernie Williams the last couple years, only with less power.