After days of dickering over terms, the Yankees and Pirates have all but consummated the A.J. Burnett trade. Although the final details haven’t been revealed, make no mistake about it, the real prize for the Bronx Bombers is simply getting rid of Burnett, not only because it will remove a growing distraction, but also give Phil Hughes one more crack at the rotation. Nonetheless, there are still secondary benefits to be derived, and based on recent reports, they add up to about $13 million.
With the approximately $6.5 million in annual savings, the Yankees are expected to fill out their roster by signing a designated hitter. Among consideration for that role is a list of usual suspects that includes old friends Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon as well as Vladimir Guerrero and Raul Ibanez. Over the past few weeks, there have been several stories about either the Yankees having interest in one of that quartet, or their expressing a desire to play in the Bronx. So, once the Burnett trade is completed, another announcement could be forthcoming.
Assuming the Yankees are limited to the four DH options mentioned above, which would make the most sense? Based on overall 2011 performance, Damon seems like the obvious answer. His OPS+ of 110 and wRC+ of 109 from last season both suggest the former Yankee is still an above average offensive player, something the other three candidates can no longer boast. Using a larger sample of the last three seasons, Damon still comes out on top in terms of wRC+, but by a much smaller margin. However, it should be noted that because of his base running contribution, Damon’s WAR (using both versions) was 2x-4x higher than the others.
Source: fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com
If the Yankees were looking for a full-time DH, Damon would be a no brainer, but instead the team really just needs a left-handed platoon partner for Andruw Jones, whose success against left handed pitchers dictates he be given half the role. Even though that would seem to eliminate the righty Guerrero, last year’s splits suggest the free swinger might be just as effective taking at bats against pitchers from the same side. In fact, over the last three seasons, all four players have been equally productive against right handers, so if someone is going to be eliminated by this emphasis, it might actually be Matsui, whose 2011 performance in the split lagged the others significantly.
Because of their respective ages, it probably makes sense to weight recent performance more heavily, so, on that basis, Damon seems to be the most sensible choice for the Yankees. When you also consider his superior athleticism (at least in terms of speed), experience playing in New York, and popularity in the clubhouse when he was previously a part of the team, the case for Damon becomes even stronger. So, why haven’t the Yankees been more overt in their interest?
In a recent column, John Heyman, whose close connection to Scott Boras is widely acknowledged, hinted at a conspiracy, but it’s worth noting that the last time the Yankees parted company with Damon, the sticking point was salary. With Brian Cashman trying to stick to a budget, and Scott Boras known for holding out for maximum value, the likely disconnect is probably related to finances. If the two sides can’t bridge that gap, the Yankees will probably choose from one of the remaining three candidates, if not go in another direction altogether.
It would be a shame if the Yankees and Damon fail to reach an agreement once again because of stubbornness on either side. Who knows, once the Burnett dust settles, maybe each side will be able to see the bigger picture more clearly? If Damon really wants to play for the Yankees, and the salary relief from the Burnett trade is earmarked for the payroll, a compromise should not be hard to reach.