Pinstriped Damon

Well, we can forget about the notion of Bubba Crosby starting in center field for the New York Yankees. Exchanging his Red Sox and wavy mane of hair for a set of pinstripes and a possible crew cut, Johnny Damon surprised more than a few observers by signing a four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees.

I have to confess: I’m shocked. I felt all along that Damon would return to the Red Sox, simply using the Yankees to drive the length of the deal to five years and eventually re-upping with the Red Sox come January. The Yankees may have felt the same way; that’s why they gave Damon’s agent, Scott Boras an ultimatum: either sign on the dotted line now, or we’ll move in a different direction to find a center fielder for 2006. The strategy worked. Realizing that there was no chance of securing the seven-year deal he initially craved, Boras decided to take the best available offer at the moment—which happened to come from the Yankees and not the Red Sox.

Is Damon the answer to the Yankees’ center field quagmire? Not really, based on his diminishing range and ragged throwing arm. At this point of his career, Damon is better suited to play left field, but that position is already occupied by Hideki Matsui. Now assuming the glamorous role of center field at Yankee Stadium, Damon will be an improvement over Bernie Williams, but only by a small margin. And with Matsui and Sheffield featuring gloves of iron in the outfield corners, the Yankees’ exterior defense remains a major concern.

In order for Damon to come close to justifying the $50-plus million ($13 million per year) he’ll receive over the length of the contract, he’ll have to prove that his late-season slide was merely a slump, and not the beginning of a precipitous offensive decline. By season’s end, Damon looked broken down and brittle. At 32 years of age, he’s reached a point where players of his ilk—those who rely on speed and slashing—often become severely depreciated. That’s not what the Yankees want, at a time when they are desperately in need of the energy and athleticism that a vintage Damon would bring to the Bronx.

Although Damon may be depreciating, his signing will still be a benefit to the Yankees—at least from this perspective: he’ll help the Yankees merely by not being able to help the Red Sox. His departure from Boston comes at a most inopportune time for the Sox. Without Damon, the Red Sox have no one ready to step in and play center field and no one capable of batting leadoff. Much like the Yankees earlier this offseason, the Red Sox will now have to consider the prospects of overspending on a flawed free agent like Preston Wilson or overpaying for a player like Jason Michaels, who’s being valued too highly by the Phillies, in a potential trade. Or they’ll have to pursue more reasonable deals with the Indians (for Coco Crisp), the Mariners (for Jeremy Reed), the Devil Rays (for Joey Gathright), or the Padres (for Dave Roberts). So instead of being able to concentrate on their bullpen woes, the Red Sox will now the face the additional tasks of locating a center fielder and leadoff man, which they may or may not be able to find in the same player.

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