The Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day and the NBA trade deadline have all come and gone. Despite Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow, it’s 70 degrees and sunny somewhere in Florida (or Arizona). Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s baseball season again.
By the end of the weekend, all pitchers and catchers will have reported to spring training, and position players will follow suit by early next week.
Some Major Leaguers, however, still don’t know what warm city they’ll be reporting to, when that will be, or if it will happen at all.
These are the players still stuck in free agency limbo. The group usually consists of older players on their way out of the game, most of whom have shown in the last few years that their bat speed is slowing down or their fastball has lost a few too many miles per hour off the radar gun. Their stats have noticeably declined in all the important categories, and they just don’t look like the same All-Star, MVP or Cy Young Award winner of years past. They might still be able to help a team win, but they’ll have to prove it on a one-year, low-risk contract. A few of this year’s examples include Nomar Garciaparra, Carlos Delgado, Gary Sheffield, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.
What a member of this group usually doesn’t look like is Johnny Damon. But he’s there anyway.
Yes, Johnny Damon is still out of a job, but Randy Winn is joining the Yankees at their facility in Tampa, Fla., to get ready to start for the defending world champions in left field this season.
No, don’t worry – it doesn’t make sense to me either.
Without a doubt, Damon’s inability to sign with a team for a decent, multi-year contract is the biggest surprise of the baseball offseason. There is not a good reason for him to be on the above list of washed-up free agents, and the truth is, he only has himself to blame.
The easiest place to start is with the agent he employs, Scott Boras, who has failed to follow up on a successful offseason of a year ago during which he secured more than $340 million in contracts for his clients, including four big-money deals for Derek Lowe, Manny Ramirez, Oliver Perez and Mark Teixeira.
But this year, aside from Matt Holiday’s 7-year, $120 million deal with the Cardinals, no other Boras client has signed a contract worth more than $12 million guaranteed. Jarrod Washburn, who finished with a 3.78 earned run average over 176 innings pitched last season, remains unsigned, and infielder Felipe Lopez, who hit .310 and scored 88 runs in 151 games in 2009, fired Boras earlier this month after becoming frustrated with his own prolonged free agency.
Damon, however, is the most puzzling Boras case and represents the agent’s biggest failure of the year. In the last season of a four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees, Damon hit 24 home runs, batted .282, drove in 88 runs, scored 107 runs and was 12-for-12 on stolen base attempts in 2009. He helped lead New York to its 27th World Series title, stealing two bases on one play against the Phillies in Game Five.
He arguably earned every penny of his last deal, which was worth $13 million per season, and now his only offers are rumored to be worth under $5 million for one year from the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers – the potential steal of the offseason. Damon turned down contract offers from the Yankees earlier in the winter that were rumored to be worth somewhere between $15 million to $18 million over two seasons because he and Boras did not feel that the outfielder deserved anything less, per season, than what he earned each year previously.
Days, weeks and months went by without a better offer, and now, the Yankees’ tender seems like one that Damon should have gladly jumped at. But Boras’ trademark aggressiveness at the negotiating table backfired this time around and has left his client hoping for half that much in a deal for 2010 as we enter spring training.
To put the kind of deal that Damon is expected to eventually sign with the White Sox or Tigers in perspective: It is likely that he will agree to a contract worth less than those signed earlier in the winter by lesser outfielders like Mike Cameron, Marlon Byrd and Coco Crisp. Yes, even less than Coco Crisp.
All of this is, of course, good news for whoever does sign Damon in the end. They will be getting a consistent, strong offensive player for relatively nothing on a short, low-risk contract – every general manager’s dream signing. Damon will likely continue to do what he has done every season since 2002 this upcoming season, which is hit at least 10 home runs, bat at least .270, score about 100 runs, and steal anywhere from 10 to 20 bases. Granted, Damon isn’t getting any younger at age 36, but he has proven that he still has the legs – at least for now – to play almost every day either in the outfield or as a designated hitter.
He does not have a great arm – in his time with the Red Sox, shirts were printed with his bearded face on them that read, “Looks like Jesus, throws like Mary” – but his defense is criticized more than it ought to be given the way he continues to make his at-bats count. To put it simply, Johnny Damon will provide the best value of any free agent signing of the winter for whichever team lands him.
Why more teams are not interested in bidding for Damon’s services is a mystery. You would think that there would be plenty of teams lining up for that kind of offensive production at that price. But most teams have already made their offseason moves and are going into spring training with a full squad that they are happy with; few feel the need to add impact players. The Yankees certainly made a bold statement by signing Randy Winn for just $2 million rather than anteing up for the superior Damon.
The ugly truth for the likeable outfielder is that he dug his own grave this offseason by going into the winter with outlandish expectations that were never going to be realized, only to find himself months later without anything close to half of what he and Boras thought he “deserved.”
Now, it looks like Damon will have to prove himself all over again in another contract year in 2010 in order to sign a future deal that he can be happier about. But that task will be even harder in 2011 at age 37 than it was this offseason – maybe even impossible.
In the meantime, though, Randy Winn has quickly become every American League team’s new favorite Yankee, and it will be like Christmas all over again for whoever ends up with Johnny Damon in their outfield for less than $5 million.
Connor Gregoire is a freshman in the College. For Love of the Game appears in every other Friday edition of Hoya Sports.