The Danger Of Damon

Johnny Damon is a New York Yankee. For some of us, it’s great news. Damon is an aging and declining veteran whose numbers will freefall as his age increases, and is certainly not a player we want the Red Sox to be writing a 10 (not to mention 13) million dollar check for in 2009. On the other side, it’s just another member of the Curse-reversing 2004 group joining a new team. A cult figure, a hair-drowned hero, a figure in Boston that represented the franchise. No matter what we say, this guy can still hit. It stings even more that he’s moved over to the Dark Side.

It’s not hard to admit that Damon’s grand salami was a Top 10 Moment in my life- it was really one of those “there’s no way in hell that just happened” plays. I did a double take and ended up fainting. To see him walking around in pinstripes, patrolling center field at Yankee Stadium, high-fiving and distributing man love to Jeter and A-Rod — it all makes for one season of torture. Not to mention Bronson Arroyo trying to take on that lineup. Could give me bad dreams for days.

Overall, I’m still neutral on this signing. I’ve talked to people who wouldn’t give Damon 3 years and 21 million, and I’ve talked to some who would take a chance on a 6 year deal and predict he’ll win the batting title next season with that lineup. I laugh at the thought of the Bronx Bombers paying Damon 13 million in 2009 when he’s a clone of Bernie Williams last year- completely and totally similar in every way. I thank Johnny for all he did in Boston. He was the guy who rounded third in Game 5 after Papi’s blooper, he hit the leadoff home run in Game 4 of the World Series to vault our thought to the level of “this IS really freakin happening”. So many memories. Now break a leg in New York. Literally.

But for those still reluctant to admit Damon to the Yanks isn’t the worst thing to happen since Pearl Harbor, I’ve done my best to extinguish the burn of Red Sox Nation and put together a list of potential setbacks during the Damon-Yankee period. Enjoy:

1) His speed is declining

We saw the immortal Dale Sveum hold up Damon at third more than ever this past season, and Francona was against sending Damon to second on a stolen base on a few occasions. Damon swiped 18 bags last season, the lowest in his career and 30th in the league behind Jason Bay, Craig Counsell and even Alex Rodriguez. His speed may still be precise when tracking down fly balls in center field at Fenway, but center field at Yankee Stadium is a whole different story. The park extends to 399 in left-center, 408 in deep center and 385 in right-center. You compare that with Fen way (379 to left-center, 390 to straightaway center (420 in the triangle), 383 to right-center) and scampering for those gappers will be a struggle.

2) He’s not even the best leadoff hitter on his team

In Alex Rodriguez’s latest choke-on-his-own-words moment, Slappy was quoted saying that “Johnny Damon, along with Ichiro Suzuki, are the best leadoff hitters in the game.” Smooth, Alex. Considering your teammate and infield partner Derek Jeter batted leadoff for the Yankees last season, that might not be the best thing to say. And actually, Jeter (.389) posted a higher OBP than Damon (.366) and a higher SLG percentage (Damon’s .439 to Jeter’s .450). Jeter also had more hits and scored more runs. This could also cause a shakeup in the Yankees lineup, as A-Rod will have to allow Damon and Jeter to bat 1-2, moving him down to 3.

3) Damon’s shoulder problems

Those massive collisions, nosedives and wall banging head-first crashes against the Fenway Park walls have to be taking a toll, right? Damon was bothered by his shoulder in August and going into September last season, but battled through the pain. As his age goes up, it’ll become more difficult to manage to play through the pain, if the shoulder problems do continue to affect him. We’ve seen the worst of the worst with Johnny- starting with his ugly collision with Damian Jackson in the 2003 ALDS and even in April of this past season when he screwed up his arm meeting that hideous Toronto scoreboard in centerfield. Warrants mentioning. And speaking of shoulder injuries, isn’t that the same problem Bernie Williams has been having recently?

4. The Yankees can’t win a World Series like this

After the 2000 World Series winning season, the Yankee brigade of signing high-priced aging free agents began. The winter of 2000-2001 left the Red Sox with slugger Manny Ramirez and the Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, who went 11-15 with a 3.79 ERA the year before. The price? 6 years at 88.5 million. The production? Mussina has been slowly declining in the latter stages of his contract, posting a 25-17 record in the last two years, along with an average 4.50 ERA. Following the 2001 World Series heartbreak, the Yankees lured in AL MVP Jason Giambi from Oakland for 7 years and 122 million. Giambi began on the right foot, but amidst tumors and steroid scandals, his batting numbers have gone down recently. But most importantly, the Yankees have not won a ring with Giambi on the roster.

After the 2002 disappointment, the Yankees made huge news when the Evil Empire extended its claws to Japan, signing home run king Hideki Matsui. This guy was supposed to be the answer, the star on the massive payroll that would be the key in winning a Series for the first time in (gasp) two seasons. Following 2003 and a second place finish, the Yanks made the biggest splash of all, trading Alfonso Soriano and other players for Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod was considered the best player in baseball, but he also owned the gaudiest contract in sports history. Add in Gary Sheffield, and this was SURELY supposed to be the year it was done. Even by snatching A-Rod from the Red Sox palms, they executed the Greatest And Most Colossal Choke In The History Of American Sports. Always nice to remember that.

So when Yankee fans say over and over again that this Damon signing will guarantee their beloved team the World Series they have been longing for since 2000, just remind them of the above. It hasn’t been done this way in the past, why should it change now?

5. An arm made of gel

Remember, center field at the Stadium is roomy. Very spacious and triples aren’t much of a stretch if you manage to gap one out there. Adding fuel to the fire, how does it feel for Cashman and Steinbrenner after adding the player with THE WORST ARM IN BASEBALL to that center field. Try tossing a medicine ball and see how far you can throw it — that’s how it feels to have Johnny Damon’s arm. Opposing players ran on Damon at will last season. It got to the point where you expected Joey Gathright to get to second on a single up the middle. I had a baseball coach that always screamed “NO LOLLIPOPS!” during outfield drills — well, he would have a fine time coaching Damon and Bernie!

6. Damon lacks power

I already mentioned his slugging percentage was mediocre, but his 10 home runs were the lowest he’s posted since 2001. The short porch may help, the nagging shoulder won’t. Looking at the OPS rankings for 2005, Damon is 64th, behind names such as Jason Lane, Placido Polanco and possible replacement Coco Crisp. Just trailing him are studs Emil Brown and David DeJesus. Good riddance.

7. Improvements to the starting pitching? Naaa.

The Yankees starting staff includes Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Chien-Ming Wang, Jaret Wright, Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon. Johnson is 42 years old and posted the highest ERA (3.79) since 1991 with the Mariners, and his 32 home runs surrendered this past year is nothing to be proud of. Mike Mussina? Average and declining. Shawn Chacon? Surprising campaign last season, has been a train wreck before that (24-45 career not counting 2005). Jaret Wright? Those injury problems and 6.08 ERA are looking real good right about now. Aaron Small? Lucky season. Carl Pavano? Wants out, should get out — quickly. The only young player here is Chien-Ming Wang, who still has a lot of work to do.

Bottom line: Offense gets you into the playoffs, but pitching wins championships. Ask the 2005 Red Sox that. The past World Champs have all won with pitching- the 2005 White Sox and their record setting rotation, the dominating performances of Pedro, Schill and Lowe for the 2004 Red Sox, Beckett and company in 2003 for the Marlins- you can go way back and it’s pitching that decides championships. If the Red Sox use this money smartly and lure in Roger Clemens for a final season, the Sox all of a sudden own the best rotation in baseball, along with an improved bullpen depending a lot on the health of Keith Foulke. Keep the faith, folks.

Schilling, Clemens, Beckett, Wakefield, Papelbon

Johnson, Mussina, Chacon, Small, Wang, Pavano

If the Red Sox can trade Bronson Arroyo and a prospect, hopefully not Andy Marte, for Jeremy Reed, the 2006 season may not be lost. Do the same for Coco Crisp, who has much better numbers and is miraculous defensively, and I’ll be pleased. Sign Roger Clemens for one last hurrah (yes, we’re desperate, and I’m willing to forget his departure in 1997) and this year we won’t have to rebuild. Pitching wins championships, folks. Remember that.