The Yankees are in the final stages of tweaking their roster heading into spring training, and everything seems to be at a standstill while the team figures out what exactly to do with A.J. Burnett. One way or another, though, it seems likely the team will add at least one designated hitter candidate to the mix.
Speaking to Jon Heyman, Johnny Damon expressed his desire to return to the Yankees, and his confussion at the fact he hasn’t been offered a contract.
“I think it’s a perfect fit,” Damon said. “But for some reason you have the year I had, especially with a team that has trouble scoring, and you can’t even get a call to continue playing.”
A couple of days ago, Joel Sherman brought up an interesting idea: That teams are worried Damon has changed his offensive approach in an attempt to reach 3,000 hits. Even Derek Jeter admitted that he became more aggressive when he had No. 3,000 in his sights. Damon told Heyman that his approach hasn’t changed, and that the pursuit of 3,000 isn’t on his mind.
I can’t help wondering if this has more to do with supply than demand. Damon is part of a free agent market that also includes Raul Ibanez, Hideki Matsui and Vladimir Guerrero. There’s no way of knowing which of those four will have a better season, and each comes with significant age and performance concerns. The Yankees don’t have to be aggressive right now, because — whatever your personal preferences — there is no clear-cut, no-doubt, best available option. Trying to decide which of these players* will have the best 2012 requires significant guesswork, and the market for their services seems to be pretty limited.
38 years old
2011 totals: .261/.326/.418
2011 vs. RHP: .255/.314/.401
Damon actually hit better against lefties last season (.277/.354/.458) but his primary role with the Yankees would be platoon at-bats against right-handers. He had 19 steals last season, so some of the speed is still there, but he’s been primarily a DH the past two seasons. Obviously the glove is near the bottom of priorities for this role, but clearly the Yankees would prefer to have someone who can step into the outfield from time to time. Damon’s certainly not the worst outfield option on this list. His clubhouse presence and famiarity surely count for something.
37 years old
2011 totals: .290/.317/.416
2011 vs. RHP: .291/.315/.428
Just because he’s a right-handed hitter doesn’t mean Guerrero can’t hit right-handed pitchers. His splits were actually slightly better against righties than against lefties last season. He’s also only one year removed from a .300/.345/.496 season in Texas. Granted, he was much better in the first half than in the second half that season, but no one else on this list had that level of success so recently. Guerrero was exclusively a DH last season and hasn’t regularly played the field since 2008. He’s pretty much limited to DH at this point.
39 years old (turns 40 in June)
2011 totals: .245/.289/.419
2011 vs. RHP: .256/.307/.440
Last season’s performance drop came rather suddenly for Ibanez. Most noticeable was a 60-point dip in his on-base percentage, and his slugging percentage also dipped despite hitting more home runs in fewer games. If the Yankees want a DH who can also help in the field, Ibanaz might be the best fit if only because he’s remained a regular in left field while playing in the National League. Then again, that might also hurt his ability to adjust to the DH role. His name seems to be the one most often mentioned in connection with the Yankees.
37 years old (turns 38 in June)
2011 totals: .251/.321/.375
2011 vs. RHP: .242/.318/.336
He was better in the second half, but the truth is, Matsui wasn’t very good against right-handers last year. He was terrific against them in 2010 (.289/.394/.474), but his overall numbers took a real hit last season. The Yankees are also well aware that Matsui’s knees have given him trouble for years, and they clearly wouldn’t consider him a real backup option in the outfield. It might only slightly matter, but he’s all DH at this point, despite the fact Oakland was willing to use him in left field several times last year. Like with Damon, the fact Matsui is a familiar face and a good clubhouse guy might count for something.
* Eric Chavez might factor into this discussion somewhere, but my sense is that the Yankees see him more as a reserve infielder than as a regular designated hitter.
Associated Press photo