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Johnny Damon: What can he do?

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Even before the end of the World Series, we knew that the Red Sox had a lot of changes ahead of them. We knew that there were a lot of holes to fill. Our offseason honeydo list looked a lot like this:

1.) Shore up rotation with an ace
2.) Fill roster holes at 1B, 2B, 3B, CF
3.) Strengthen bullpen
4.) Strengthen bench
5.) Accomodate Manny/Wells trade issues?

Last week's blockbuster trade addressed #'s 1, 2, and 3. The rotation now has 8 men under Sox control for 5 spots in 2006 (Schill, Paps, Beckett, Clement, Miller, Wake, Wells, Arroyo). Our 3B hole has been plugged with gold-glover Mike Lowell (whose excitement over the trade is contagious). That move also allows 1B to be potentially taken care of by placing Kapable Kevin Youkilis there (though the Sox are exploring options for a left-hander in a platoon situation. Why not use Petagine???). Mota is a piece to what will be need to be a better bullpen. 2nd base may already be taken care of, with an Alex Cora/Dustin Pedroia platoon.

That leaves CF, bullpen and bench as issues the Sox need to address before the truck leaves Fenway for Ft. Myers.

Obviously, the most pressing need the Sox face is a center fielder. Hence, the question. What to do about Johnny Damon? Should we resign him? Is he worth the money?

Everyone knows Damon's story, and if you don't, Scott Boras will be happy to supply you with a thick binder of bathroom reading statistics and other semi-useful information including:

  • He is the only leadoff hitter since 1972 to have more than 165 hits and score at least 100 runs for eight straight seasons.
  • Over the last six years, he has been in scoring position 25 percent more than any other leadoff man.
  • He has scored more runs, driven in more runs, walked more and had a higher slugging percentage than any leadoff hitter for the last four seasons.
  • Only seven players saw more pitches than Damon in 2004 and '05.
Make no mistake, Boras has done his homework on this one. That's what agents are for. Let's take a closer look at Damon and what he means to the Sox.

The tablesetter. The pesky little scrapper that grinds out at bats and gives his teammates a chance to see some pitches before they take their hacks. A guy who can beat you with speed and get on base for the guys behind him. Sounds important right? Damon's probably not even the best "leadoff hitter" on the team. In 2005, he was 5th on the team in P/PA (pitches per plate appearance) at 3.7, and 10th amongst all center fielders.

Speed? Damon was 4th (all center fielders) in SB's, and may be one of the fastest runners from 1st to 3rd, but his 18 stolen bases are less than what I'd consider a major impact on the game.

Getting on base?

Damon was 4th again in OBP this past year for CFers, behind mashers Griffey and Edmonds. This is more impressive, considering how many center fielders are players like Edmonds who hit 4th or 5th in a lineup.

So what's he worth?

Turning again to Price Per Win Share, we can figure that Damon has, over the course of his contract, been worth about $344,000 per win share, under the Sox team average for that time period. Let's say that Boston wants to keep Damon for 4/40. He would have to earn 86 (or more) win shares over the course of his contract, 21.5 per year, which is what he had in 2002. That year, Damon batted .286, stole 31 bases, hit 14 homers, drove in 63, and had an OPS of .799. These are very close to his career averages. Though he's less likely to steal 30 bases ever again, unless Francona turns him loose next year, Damon will likely continue to hit .300, and approach an .800 OPS. Even with 17 win shares annually throughout the contract (he's been over 17 every year since 1998), he's not as overpaid as it would seem. Then again, if he's getting paid 12 mil a year, he'd need 26 or more win shares to be worth it for the Sox, and he's only reached that number once (2004).

The fact that Damon HAS played so many games doesnt help any argument for his longevity, then again, his durability and tenacity to play are not unnoticed or underappreciated. He's likely to continue his productive trend at least until he's 34, so why the hold up? A new 4-year contract would make him 32, 33, 34, and 35 over its course. Some players have had their most productive seasons at these ages, many less durable and functionally important as Damon.

As much as a 4/40 deal makes sense for the Sox, it makes even more for Damon. He'd return to a city (and a fanbase) that gobbles up his wildman persona. He'd be playing in a park that suits him, and he'd return to a clubhouse atmosphere that he helped sculpt. Even a 4/40 with a 5th year option wouldn't be out of the question, but more than 10 million a year is pushing it. A 4/40 deal would not only put him in the same class as Varitek (who in my opinion was a far more important FA to sign), it wouldn't kill the Sox in terms of value/money.

Numbers aside, its obvious that Damon brings a lot to the table in the form of playing hard, grinding out at-bats, and other various impressive statistics. Of course Boras is going to start high, but no-one in their right mind is going to garuntee Johnny Damon 12 million dollars on his 39th birthday to play center field.

So what does it all mean? Well, I guess I support the Sox resigning Johnny Damon, though for the right price. Can he be replaced? Sure. Ship David Wells off to sunny San Diego and get Dave Roberts to fill in until Jacoby Ellsbury is ready to take over. There are always options. Then again, not having Johnny Damon at the top of your lineup just may be as important as Joe Buck thinks it is.