As Left Fielder upon Left Fielder after Left Fielder have all been signed in recent weeks, and the price tag on Matt Holliday appearing to be way out of the Yankees price range, there’s a natural tendency among many Yankee fans to think that the Yanks have a trump card that they’re waiting to play to fill that Left Field vacancy. That trump card of course, is named Johnny Damon. These folks never believe the Yanks when they claim to have a budget of any kind. They will cite Brian Cashman maintaining that Bubba Crosby was his starting CF right up to the day he signed Johnny Damon the first time around, and the ‘fantasy land’ comments he made regarding Mark Teixeira last year as evidence to back up this claim.
It’s time to give up the ghost. TYU fave Mark Fiensand crunched the numbers on the 2010 payroll and found the reason why the Yanks have been so quiet since the Javy Vasquez deal. They’re tapped out if they want to inch payroll down next year, as Yankee GM Brian Cashman has maintained all winter.
Now, when people say they don’t believe what Brian Cashman says, I have no problem with that. For me, what any GM or agent says about prospective Free Agents should always be taken with a very large grain of salt. It’s much smarter to look at what they do, not what they say. When deciding if the Yanks are in on a player, I always start by looking at the estimated payroll, and their recent track record in terms of spending. That’s why I never believed that they weren’t laying in the weeds on Mark Teixeira. They had a need on the roster and were in the mid-180′s payroll wise when he was still available. But as Feinsand details, that isn’t the case now. The Yanks are at roughly 202 mil for their Opening Day payroll right now. They did inch payroll down by almost 8 mil last year, so when they claim to be dedicated to lowering payroll it’s credible. They have been around 200 mil since Brian took over control of Baseball ops in late 2005, with an uptick when the ownership situation was unsettled in 07-08 and the A-Rod contract (that Brian didn’t support) was signed.
Brian also appears to prefer the flexibility of leaving LF open for future considerations. I suspect this is one of the main reasons why he’s held firm on a 1 year deal for Johnny, which always struck me as unrealistic if he really wanted to retain him. When Brian Cashman first became GM in 1997, he was assembling rosters that included the likes of Ricky LeDee, Chad Curtis and (a washed up) Chuck Knobloch as the Yankee Opening Day starting Left Fielder. The team didn’t have a star in Left until George Steinbrenner took back control of the team in 2003 and signed Hideki Matsui. Signing Johnny to a 2 year deal could prevent you from acquiring a big CF or RF down the road, should one become available. They may also want to get a look at Derek Jeter out there at some point over the next two seasons, especially with his contract expiring next year. Few players get to stay SS full time in the major leagues past the age of 36. Alex is a possibility as well, coming off hip surgery you may prefer to move Derek to 3B and shift Alex to Left. With all the questions about Jesus Montero as a Catcher, he’s a possibility out there as well. For all of you Carl Crawford lovers, he could become available mid season should the Rays fall out of the pennant race. In any case, I think I’ve established that we have numerous reasons to leave the position open for future considerations. It gives you tremendous flexibility, and GMs love to have options.
We covered the finances, we covered roster flexibility, so now now lets examine need. The DH role where Johnny figured to spend many days in 2010 has been filled by Nick Johnson. I’m with EJ in thinking that Brett Gardner will be our starting CF, which moves Granderson to Left. Even if the Yanks don’t go in that direction, a platoon of Hoffman/Gardner in Left will be fine, given the rest of our lineup. As Dave Cameron at FanGraphs discussed last week, the marginal value of a win declines when you have a roster like the Yanks have right now. Is LF potentially still open? Yes. Do we NEED to sign a LF to win? Absolutely not.
There’s another thing to consider when discussing Johnny Damon. There’s a thought process among the Yankee brass that you wouldn’t want Johnny back at a big salary cut. Cashman has been quoted numerous times saying exactly that. Don’t forget what happened back in 2007. Joe Torre detailed in his book The Yankee Years that Johnny came into camp badly out of shape and was contemplating retirement. He went on to have an awful 1st half and a sub par season. Both he and the Yanks might be better off if Johnny got a fresh start somewhere else.