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Letting Damon go the right move

Judging from the coverage, you’d think that the only thing that happened in Monday’s game was Johnny Damon’s home run. There is this weird element of "Ha! You see? This very flawed Yankees team that is on a pace to win only 110 games has been hoist with their own petard!" This is a fact-free storyline, but it’s fun, so what the hey, let’s go with it.

As we’ve discussed in this space previously with regards to Hideki Matsui, retaining Damon was not just a question of respecting his abilities or not. On a purely philosophical level, there can be little doubt that the Yankees appreciated what Damon had done for them in the past and might do for them again in the future. The issue was one of money and the way the player perceived the organization’s intentions. As with Matsui, Damon had an old-economy contract, worth $13 million a year. Part-time left fielder/designated hitters who can’t throw just aren’t getting those kinds of salaries anymore, and they’re not getting multi-year contracts at 36 either. It is very awkward to ask a player to take a 40 percent pay-cut (Damon took $8 million from Detroit) on a one-year deal and remain in your organization. From the Tigers, it was what the market would support. From the Yankees, it would have been an insult.

If the Yankees could not have retained Damon on a one-year contract at a Great Recession discount, then what he does for the Tigers this year is irrelevant. It’s what he does next year and the year after, if he’s around that long, that should concern us, because those are the years the Yankees would have had to cover to retain his services and good will.

From a pure baseball point of view, it would have been difficult to defend retaining Damon at a price that would have attracted him given that left field and designated hitter are usually not difficult positions to fill. Paying a premium price for a player whose production, however solid, would have fallen far below the MVP level, is not justified. Indeed, Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson together will make $11.25 million this year, just $3.25 million more than Damon will be paid by the Tigers. As popular as Damon was, as good as he is, letting him go once he rejected the Yankees terms was a solid baseball move.

It always hurts when a popular player leaves town while still having a little something left. George Steinbrenner used to say that his biggest baseball mistake was letting Reggie Jackson leave after 1981, but the Boss was only second-guessing himself because he had the benefit of hindsight. Reggie was a 36-year-old DH coming off a bad (strike-shortened) season. He had one more Reggie! year left in 1982 and a solid season in 1985, but be also hit .210/.296/.377 from 1983-1984. The Yankees would have had to pay for five years to get two good ones, and Steinbrenner’s first guess was the right one.

Unlike Reggie, perhaps Damon will have a softer landing to his career. Personally, I’d like to see it happen. He’s a likeable guy and with a strong 2010 he will finish the season with nearly 2600 hits, within striking distance of 3000 if he cares about that. With over 1500 runs scored, it’s not unlikely that he could break into the top 20 in that category. A solid finish would transform him from the aforementioned likeable guy to a likeable Hall of Famer.

Even if that happens, though, the Yankees would still have made the right decision in letting him go. A team’s priority isn’t to wring the last drops of talent from a player at all costs, it is to judge the player’s skills and place on the aging curve against the supply and demand at his position. They haven’t replaced Damon perfectly — that platoon bat for Granderson is still on the planning board, if the Yankees have actually accepted the need for it — but that doesn’t invalidate the decision to do so.