It's been an up-and-down, tumultuous off-season for the New York Yankees. They made some smart moves (hiring Joe Girardi, re-signing Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada) and some stumbles, both awkward (treating Joe Torre badly) and horribly miscalculated (handing the keys to the vault to Alex Rodriguez). But the next move the Yankees make could be the difference between post-season success and failure in 2008. The team must not trade Johnny Damon.
What? You thought I was going to say that the Yankees had to trade for Johan Santana? Sure, if the price is right, both in players and dollars, the club should go ahead and pull the trigger on that one. But after blowing up two years of careful planning by giving a ten-year, $275 million (at least) contract to A Rod, arguably the most selfish player in baseball, who is also a guy with a post-season record in pinstripes bad enough to make Carl Pavano feel like he might not be the biggest bust in Yankee history, the team has to put the ship back on a championship track. And, believe it or not, keeping Damon would be consistent with that plan.
As currently constituted, unless you think Jason Giambi is going to develop a new body in the off-season (who knows what kind of undetectable performance-enhancing drugs are out there now?) that would enable him to play first base, the Yankees essentially have three left-handed batters for two spots (left field and designated hitter): Hideki Matsui, Damon and Giambi.
If you believe what you read in the papers (always a dicey proposition, as teams usually release information to reporters with an eye toward accomplishing a goal, not toward providing a public service to fans), the Yankees are open to dealing Damon, who has two years and $26 million left on the four-year deal he signed with the team before the 2006 season. After all, Damon's body broke down last year, especially in the first half of the season, sapping him of some of his speed and power, and preventing him from playing the position he was signed to play, center field. And his numbers were down in 2007, batting only .270 with 12 home runs. The argument goes that you want Matsui, who has career numbers of a .295 batting average and .371 on-base percentage, with averages of 24 home runs and 108 runs batted over his four full Yankee seasons (he missed most of 2006 with a wrist injury), in the middle of the lineup.
In my judgment, though, such a decision would be wrong.
As I've written in my October 29 (premature) farewell to A Rod and my November 20 lament at the Yankees' decision to bring A Rod back, championships are won by superior pitching and by guys who do what it takes to win, play smart, find ways to succeed against good pitchers and hit in the clutch, not by sluggers who amass impressive regular season numbers (not that they have to be mutually exclusive, as Reggie Jackson and David Ortiz can attest). In that sense, Damon is the anti-A Rod, a proven winner who raises his game when the pressure is on.
Sure, Damon had an off year in 2007, and his first half of the season was abysmal. But when everything was said and done, Damon's numbers were not too far off his career averages. His .270 batting average was 18 points below his career average, but with his 73 walks, he finished with an on-base percentage of .351, only two points below his career percentage. More importantly, few players see more pitches than Damon, which allows his teammates to have more information going into their at-bats, and which wears down starters, keeping them from advancing deeper into games. Throw in that Damon still managed to score 93 runs and drive in 63 from the lead-off spot, and his 2007 regular season suddenly doesn't look as bad as some would have you believe.
But what makes Damon indispensable to the 2008 Yankees is his history of post-season success. He not only is not fearful of the big stage, he embraces it, which allows him to find a way to succeed more often than not. While Alex Rodriguez struggled to a one-for-14, no RBI performance in the 2006 ALDS against Detroit, Damon batted .400 in the first two games, scoring twice in the Yanks' only win in Game 1, and providing the team's only runs with a three-run homer in the 4-3 loss in Game 2, before being subdued by Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman like the rest of his teammates in Games 3 and 4. Last year, in the ALDS against Cleveland, Damon batted .278 (second highest on the team of anyone with at least five at-bats) with a team-leading two home runs and five runs batted in. His clutch three-run homer in Game 3 turned a 3-2 Indians lead into a 5-3 Yankee advantage, and his lead-off home run in Game 1 off of C.C. Sabathia put the Yankees on the right track (only to be derailed by the first of two awful pitching performances by Chien-Ming Wang).
And I don't think that any of us Bomber fans want to go back to Damon's pre-Yankee days and relive his two home runs in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, including a gut-punch grand slam, that sent the Red Sox to the World Series and the Yankees on a post-season spiral from which they have yet to right themselves.
You can make an argument that while the hitting has gone silent in the last two post-seasons, Damon was the only Yankee to do his job both years. Even Derek Jeter, one of the most clutch players of all time, played a major role in the Yankees' 2007 demise, with the final nail in the coffin being his inning-ending double play in the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 4 after, yes, Damon had singled to set up a first-and-third situation with one out.
So if between Matsui, Giambi and Damon one of them has to go, obviously, Giambi is the one you'd like to see jettisoned. But if that's not possible (believe it or not, there might not be a market for an oft-injured, steroids-tainted, designated hitter with diminishing skills who hasn't managed 500 at-bats in a season since 2003 and is owed $21 million for 2008), and it comes down to a choice between Damon and Matsui, I think it's a no-brainer. Damon is the man to stay.
Yes, the Yankees have to beef up the team's pitching, but what the first-round exits of the last three years have demonstrated is that they also need good hitters who can be effective in pressure situations against good pitchers the way Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez were during the team's championship run between 1996 and 2000. Rodriguez isn't that kind of player. Giambi isn't that kind of player. And Matsui? He certainly was that type of player once, batting .339 in his first five post-season series for the Bombers. But Matsui's iron man approach, playing in every game for years leading up to his 2006 wrist injury, might have taken its toll on his body. He seems slower, both in the field and at the plate, and he has been less adept at finding ways to succeed against good pitching. And his recent post-season numbers prove it. In the Yankees' last three first-round defeats, Matsui has batted .213 with one home run and two runs batted in in 47 at-bats.
But Damon has been the exact kind of player that helps you win in the post-season. He has, in fact, played a huge part in the only two playoff wins the Yankees have managed in the last two years. Look at it this way, in one at-bat in Game 3 of the ALDS last year (the go-ahead three-run homer), Damon amassed the same number of runs batted in as Matsui and A Rod were able to manage combined in the last three Yankees series (13 games each, a combined 91 at-bats). If it's October of 2008, Game 5 of the ALDS, the Yankees are down by one run, and it's two outs, who do you want to see standing at home plate, Damon or Matsui? The numbers don't lie. Damon is the choice.
Which is why the Yankees can't trade him. I'm not saying that Matsui has to go, but only that Damon has to be the team's left fielder and lead-off batter in 2008.
The mega deal the team handed to A Rod may be so cataclysmic that the Yankees will not be able to recover. I accept that premise. But if there is any chance for the team to succeed next year and beyond, the powers that be have to return to the formula that the club followed in the 1990s, and the one general manager Brian Cashman has pursued for the last two years. The Yankees have to stress young pitching, avoid giving bloated long-term contracts to free agents, and find the type of smart, tough, battle-tested, team-oriented hitters that can get the job done in October. And with Johnny Damon, they have a player like that sitting on the roster. After the major mistake of handing a gargantuan contract to a guy like A Rod, every subsequent decision has become that much more important. Keeping Damon would mean recognizing what it takes to win in October. Isn't that what it's all about?