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December 21, 2005

Johnny B. Good Enough
by Larry Mahnken

Stop it, stop it, stop it. Shutup, shutup, shutup. You shouldn't be complaining about this one. The Yankees just won the AL East, and vastly improved their chances of winning the World Series.

No, Johnny Damon isn't worth $13 million a year, or even close to it. More like $7 million or $8 million, but it's not your money, and their payroll isn't (and won't be) close enough that this will hamper their ability to sign anyone this season or next.

This isn't Tony Womack or Jaret Wright who they brought in, a player coming off a flukish year who looks to the team to be far better than he is, this is a player who is actually good.

As sabermetrics has entered the mainstream, I've heard more and more arguments that are based, seemingly, on a half-understanding of sabermetric principles. Damon seems to be a whole lot of them put together.

Damon is 32 and will be 36 at the end of the deal, similar to Bernie Williams. His defense is based largely on speed and he has a very, very, very weak arm. Sound familiar?

Well, it's not the same thing. Yeah, Bernie had lost all defensive value by age 33, but his defense was based entirely on his speed. Damon has a distinct advantage over Bernie: he actually knows how to play center. When Bernie couldn't outrun his mistakes, those mistakes killed the team. Damon soon won't be able to outrun his mistakes, but he won't make nearly as many as Bernie does. Think about how much better the Yankees would have been had Bernie taken the right route to the ball most of the time.

And it needs to be pointed out that Bernie was hitting great at the start of 2003 when he hurt his knee. Had he not hurt his knee, there's good reason to believe he'd still be a good hitter -- and good reason to believe that Damon will still be a good hitter for a centerfielder at the end of this deal. It is only four years -- it'll be over before you know it.

Rating by straight OPS among qualifield MLB centerfielders, Damon ranked 5th last year, 5th in 2004, 13th in a lousy 2003, 9th in 2002, 11th in a lousy 2001, 6th in 2000. None of the players rated above him the last two seasons were available to the Yankees. Turn OPS into EqA, which includes Damon's excellent baserunning and those ratings are 5th, 3rd, 16th, 7th, 23rd, 7th.

I know how my friends look at it, they're inclined to do the same as I initially did. 16th! 23rd! We're ruined!

Well, look at the last two years. Look at four of those six seasons -- we got one of the best hitting centerfielders in the game, and the best available. Will he be that good over the course of his contract? Probably not, but I'd bet good money that he'll be closer to those best years than those worst years.

Is he a better leadoff hitter than Derek Jeter? No, of course not, because there is probably no better leadoff hitter right now than Derek Jeter. But is the fact that he never has had an OBP near .400 really a killer? Newsflash: that's not the standard, and it shouldn't be the standard.

Again, this isn't Womack batting first when he should be batting ninth. This isn't a guy stealing 100 PAs from hitters much better than him, this is a guy stealing, maybe, a dozen PAs from better hitters. Frankly, Damon's best spot on this team is leadoff -- that's where he should be batting.

Look at this likely lineup:

CF Damon
SS Jeter
3B Rodriguez
RF Sheffield
1B Giambi
LF Matsui
C Posada
2B Cano
DH Williams

Compare it to a likely lineup with Damon not batting leadoff:

SS Jeter
3B Rodriguez
RF Sheffield
1B Giambi
LF Matsui
C Posada
CF Damon
2B Cano
DH Williams

The first one looks more impressive, at least to me. 1-5, the Yankees are stronger in the second lineup than the first, but in the second lineup Damon is pushed to, basically, an RBI spot. Not a spot where he'll get a lot of RBIs, but a place where that'll be where most of his value will come in. Getting on base, Cano and Williams won't be driving him in a lot, and while Damon hits about 35 doubles a year and 10-15 homers, he won't really be driving Matsui or Posada home. In the 7th spot, his value is less.

And what of Jeter through Matsui? What's the gain there? Well, there certainly is some, they all gain 10 PAs or so. But come on, that's not really much.

Really, the best spot for Damon is either first or second, and the better hitter (Jeter) really should be batting second. This isn't Womack, where he shouldn't be anywhere near the top of the lineup, and preferably not in the lineup at all, and this isn't Soriano, where his value was minimized by batting him leadoff, this is a situation where the player's value to the team is maximized by batting him leadoff, and he's worthy of hitting there.

He gets on base enough. His OBP is usually above .350, he steals a good number of bases at, over the past 4 seasons, an 82% success rate. He hits doubles, but not many homers. He puts himself in position for the team's betst hitters to drive him home -- he's scored over 100 runs 8 years in a row, averaging 114 runs scored a season. No, he's not as good as Jeter, but he's good.

Seriously, what did you guys prefer? Jason Michaels? Yes, he could be very good for them -- better than Damon, and he wouldn't cost $13 million -- but he's not freely available. The Yankees will have to trade to get him (which the still can -- they really could use another backup outfielder), but they have competition for him -- and unlike with Damon, they don't have the ability to outbid their competitors. They just don't have the chips.

Next, replacement level. Last year, Damon's WARP3 was 6.9, 8.2 in 2004, 6.3 in '03 and 7.1 in '02. As it stands, the Red Sox are faced with a replacement level centefielder to replace Damon -- in signing Damon the Yankees have likely taken 6 wins away from the Red Sox. They'll likely make a trade, but probably have to deal Manny Ramirez to get someone good. In the end, they're worse.

Damon replaces Bernie Williams, whose WARP3 last year was 3.1. In other words, Damon improves the Yankees by three or four wins immediately, and perhaps by as many as ten wins over the Red Sox.

TEN WINS. Think about all the moves that have happened this offseason with Boston and the Yankees, think about the moves that happened last season. Did any single move shift the the balance of power by ten wins? Or even close to that? No. Purely measuring the AL East, this is the biggest move for the Yankees in the last decade.

OK, so the world doesn't end in the AL East, but this move does make them heavy favorites to win the division again, in my opinion. More than that, it seals up the gaping hole they had in centerfield, which has cost them so dearly in the postseason the past four seasons. Defense isn't vital over the course of the regular season -- you can make up for it with offense as the Yankees have the past four years -- but in a short series, one bad defensive play can cost you a game, and with it a series. Damon will make fewer of those bad defensive plays, and he helps the offense, too.

Damon's signing also means that it's "safe" to sign Bernie. Yeah, he's not really a very good option at DH, but that's all he'll be. Torre will never bench Damon to put Bernie back in center like he would have with Crosby -- like he did with Lofton -- so we'll never have to suffer that sight again.

The Yankees entered the offseason with two pressing needs: relief pitching and centefield, center being the bigger of the two problems. Let this be clear: there was NO better option available to the Yankees this offseason than Johnny Damon. None.

They've signed Kyle Farnsworth, who should be okay. They've signed Mike Myers and traded for Ron Villone, who should be good enough as lefty relievers. They've signed Octavio Dotel, who could potentially be dominant when he comes back in mid-season. They may not be done yet, but while I really wish they'd brought back Tom Gordon, they've done okay in addressing the bullpen.

Most importantly, they didn't sign bullshit. Miguel Cairo is probably coming back to be a super-utility, the role he should have filled in 2004 and will be outstanding at. They didn't sign Tino, they didn't sign Womack, they didn't sign a bunch of starters they don't need. They've gone after what they needed, ignored what they didn't.

Brian Cashman is doing a fantastic job this offseason. Until now, he hadn't made any big splashes, but he's greatly improved the team while doing nothing to hurt it down the road.

And Damon won't hurt them down the road. He won't be an offensive and defensive sinkhole in four years, though he won't be ideal, and will certainly decline further. But he won't stop them from bringing in, say, Andruw Jones next year. When Sheffield leaves, they can move Matsui to right and Damon to left, and they're fine with Jones -- not that I expect Cashman to pursue him.

I'm convinced the Yankees won the AL East last night. At the very least, nobody should be complaining -- this is a good day.